Monday, May 16, 2005

my dictionaries

If all the books had a party dictionaries would be the boring uncle in the corner, taking conversations literally and eating all the bean dip. Even the other reference books would fare better, thesauruses with their flowery stories about nothing and encyclopedias keeping their blandly told anecdotes bobbing with factoids. My dictionaries did nothing more than prop up my novels until I started seriously studying Japanese, spending a several hours everyday with these stodgy little uncles. They can be pretty damn amusing actually.

Learning a foreign language your choice of dictionary can seriously affect your day to day routine, and suddenly that bookshelf fixture you always took for granted is the only thing between you and opening a bank account. Like any book you spend a bit of time with, you start to wonder about the author. Where is she from? What is she like? Why do so many of the example sentences in here ring with resentment towards younger sisters?

Bought within a few weeks of first coming here, “The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary” (Editor in Chief Jack Halpern) has been the single best reference book I have ever had the pleasure to use. It is bound like a Gideons bible, floppy plastic crimson cover over its paperback spine. I have bored more than a few people enthusing about this kanji dictionary, but the fact is the thing is awesome. It uses a simple and logical system that reinvents the process of organizing characters, and provides extensive examples on meaning and core usage. It is also the only dictionary I’ve ever encountered with extensive biographical information of the editor, a photo of him on the inside jacket cover, grinning like an employee of the month in his tweed suit and accountant’s haircut. In the foreword to the dictionary (yes, there’s a foreword), University of Hawaii Professor of Japanese Agnes M. Niyekawa talks about Jack with the enthusiasm that only real language geeks like us can really appreciate.

“Only someone like Jack Halpern, who learned seven languages before Japanese, and has since added five other languages, could have conceived of such an extraordinary dictionary that is ideally suited to learners… Jack Halpern did not waste his time day dreaming, but embarked upon the project within a year of his arrival in Japan.”

I’ve thought about writing a fan letter to Jack care of the publisher, asking if he’s ever going to edit a sequel.

Although it has considerably less personality, “The Yellow Book” covered the other major hurdle in my Japanese study, grammar. Recommended to me by a former Mormon housemate who learned Japanese while having doors slammed in his face, “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” covers just about every major basic grammatical formation in a thorough, rigorous and thoroughly bland manner. I don’t know why, but copying down their example sentences always made me giggle. E.g.

Bakari, a particle which indicates that s.t. is the only thing or state which exists, or the only action s.o. will take, takes, is taking or took. Example: “Dezato wa taberu dake ni natte imasu. (Lit.) The only thing left to do with desert is to eat it.”

~garu, an auxiliary verb attached to a psychological/physiological adjective meaning a person other than the speaker shows signs of ~. Example: “Ueda-san wa aisu-krimu o tabeta gatta. Mr. Ueda showed signs of wanting to eat ice cream.”

But no dictionary hits the proper balance of useful reference and amusing reading quite like “A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters” by Kenneth G. Henshall. I discovered “A Guide...” sitting innocently on a shelf in the East Asian Studies section of my school library. Henshall (actually, let’s call him Ken), doesn’t get Jack Halpern’s star treatment, remaining blessedly anonymous. But while Jack simply created a lookup system and oversaw a staff that implemented it, we spend all of “A Guide...” with Ken, wading through short passages that explain the origins and changing meanings of the standard two thousand characters in the Japanese writing system.

While the lions share of entries are straightforward explanations, (Hashi: Bridge. [The left side] is “wood”, [the right side] is “tall”, thus “tall wooded structure” which came to be associated specifically with bridges), one does occasionally come across some real howlers. “Kan: Government, Official. [The upper section] is “roof.” [The lower section] is “buttocks”, here acting phonetically to express “work” and almost certainly also lending an idea of “sedentary”. Thus “person doing sedentary work in a building”, which came to have particular associations with an official doing work for the government.” I really dig Ken’s deadpan delivery on that one.

But the crowning jewel of “A Guide...” is the entry on the character for “trade”, where Ken loses his cool and shows us a bit of the rage that drives the hardcore etymologist. While most character entries take up a third of a page at the most, the “trade” entry spills over three quarters of the page, barely holding in the essay he clearly had in mind. Ken cuts down any conflicting theories on the character left and right, first brushing aside anyone who would mistake it for a combination of “ sell” and “mouth”, then pushing with disturbing intensity his own theory:

[The lower section] is almost certainly “spread thighs”, the plumpness indicating female thighs, with “opening” added to indicate vagina. [The upper section] is the early form of needle, which was often used to symbolize “pierce/penetrate.” Thus this character appears to have originally meant “vaginal penetration”, i.e. “copulation.” From this point the link with trade seems clear, i.e. the worlds oldest trade of prostitution.

In case you had any doubts or were listening to any other etymologists, Ken spends the rest of the page attacking other theories that try to explain “trade” as a variant of “tall” or who explain the presence of the vagina radical as a purely phonetic borrowing. As Ken witheringly puts it “This does not seem especially convincing.” He’s holding onto to his plump thighs and penetrated vaginas come hell or high water.

Now your dictionary may have a cleaner and more pared down version of “trade”, but let me tell you, I never forgot that character again.


Anonymous said...

People often say : “Kanji is difficult. There are about 5,000 Kanji characters and each one seems to have at least 1-3 pronounciations and 1-3 meanings.” - That's right! This is one of the two most difficult things in mastering Japanese. (The other one is polite language which is a problem for most Japanese themselves)))
However, from a practical point of view you actually need to remember not the separate readings and meanings of a particular kanji, but the words written by it. Alas, there are too many words. So it's reasonable to focus on the most frequently used.
I tried to help students of Japanese when I started my site - You can see more discussion of the problem in the "Introduction" ( A list of other good sites on Japanese and its writing system may also be useful (

Still, please keep in mind: it's only a BETA VERSION of the site!

Good luck in learning kanji - it's actually can be fun!

Alex said...

Huh. What is that shit in the previous comment?

Anyway, I just wanted to say that "vagina radical" sounds like a hip zine.

Vagina Radical said...

Jamie, your last two posts are amazing. I've always been a big dictionary fan (but hopefully am not Uncle Dictionary at parties) and would love to see everybody toss in their favorite dictionaries to make a list of great, if extremely nerdy, summer reading. I'll recommend "How to Survive in the Chilean Jungle," by John Brennan and Alvaro Taboada. Except I couldn't actually locate it in the US, so that's a challenge for the local book club.


Jamie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jamie said...

Alex: Yes, I agree. Let's start it together.

Rachel: Thanks, glad you liked these last two.

Alexander: Thanks for reading and commenting, but I have no idea why you're talking to me like I started studying yesterday. In case you didn't read the blog summary at the top of the page, I occasionally do translation for money.

The Humanity Critic said...

Just passing through, I'm definitely digging the blog.

piroko said...

I read your last post and just wanted to say that I really enjoyed it. I'm Japanese but I didn't know "trade" means "copulation" lol
I'll come by some other time.