As a Japanese learner, you’ve probably seen the news on Ariana Grande’s tattoo fail online. If not, I’ll briefly fill you in on what happened.
七 (seven) + 輪 (ring, circle) = 七輪 (barbeque grill)!?
The singer intended to get a tattoo meaning ‘7 Rings’ (the name of her latest single) in Japanese on her hand. She posted an image of her new tattoo on social media last week.
Soon after being shared online, a lot of her fans were quick to look up the meaning of the tattoo and were pretty confused. Ariana then quickly got her tattoo changed to try and get the meaning closer to ‘7 Rings’.
Aside from not giving her future tattoo a quick search online, I think a lot of people studying Japanese may have seen the tattoo and not immediately thought of a barbeque grill.
Why does this happen in Japanese?
One reason for this is ateji (当て字). Ateji is the name given to words borrowed from other languages (mostly Chinese), where the kanji for that word were chosen based on their pronunciation rather than their meaning.
This is mostly the case for older loanwords, as newer loanwords are usually written with katakana.
However, you may see it in relation to the names of various countries, particularly in newspapers. For instance:
|Kanji||Kana/ Romaji||Name in Katakana/ Romaji||English|
|英||えい / ei||イギリス / igirisu||England|
|仏||ふつ / futsu||フランス / furansu||France|
|独||どく / doku||ドイツ / doitsu||Germany|
|西||せい / sei||スペイン / supein||Spain|
|豪||ごう / gou||オーストラリア / oosutoraria||Australia|
|加||か / ka||カナダ / kanada||Canada|
|印||いん / in||インド / indo||India|
|伊||い / i||イタリア / itaria||Italy|
Sometimes these ateji readings are used in words in literature and TV to give them an artistic flair. If this is something you want to learn more about, I recommend checking out BuSensei’s social media feeds as he regularly posts about interesting kanji usage.
Another reason for this is that modern words are contractions of old sayings or idioms, which there are some examples of below.
Seeing the story about Ariana inspired me to look up other words which have a different meaning to the sum of the component kanji.
Here’s a few other words in Japanese which fall into this category.
馬 (horse) + 鹿 (deer) = 馬鹿 baka (idiot)
This is probably the most famous example amongst Japanese learners (although often written in hiragana), since we see it so much in the media.
The etymology of baka is contested, but there are two main theories. Baka could be a word derived from an old Chinese idiom (meaning ‘to point at a deer and call it a horse’, ie. deliberately misleading someone) or a loanword from Sanskrit.
寿 (longevity) + 司 (administer; servant) = 寿司 sushi
Like baka, sushi is thought to have two different origins.
The first is that it comes from the word 久し (ひさし/ hisashi), meaning long lasting (as in 久しぶり). This is why the kanji compound is made up of the kanji for longevity and the kanji for servant.
The second (ateji origin) is thought to be from the word ‘酸し’, (すし, meaning sour) which refers to the vinegar mixed with rice to help preserve the fish it was served with.
皮 (skin) + 肉 (meat, flesh) = 皮肉 hiniku (irony)
The origin for this compound is said to come from a longer phrase 皮肉骨髄 (literally meaning “skin meat bones marrow”) attributed to Buddhism in ancient China. ‘Bones and marrow’ were thought to show essential understanding, in contrast to ‘skin and meat’ which represented superficiality.
Consequently, 皮肉 was used as a way to
矛 (spear, halberd) + 盾 (shield) = 矛盾 mujun (contradiction)
This word too comes from Chinese. There is a story of a man who was selling spears and shields. He said that the spear and the shield were the strongest of their kind; the spear could not be beaten by any shield, and the shield could not be beaten by any spear. One person then asked, “what happens when you use the spear against the shield?”, which the seller was unable to answer.
This Youtube video explains the origin of the Chinese word better than I can:
十八 (18) + 番 (number) = 十八番 ohako (one’s special talent, party trick)
There are a few different potential origins for this word, but one of the most popular is to do with kabuki. The 歌舞伎十八番 (kabuki juuhachiban, ”Eighteen Best Kabuki Plays”) were a collection of plays chosen by the famous Ichikawa Danjuro line of kabuki actors. These were stored in a box to keep them safe, which is where the modern meaning is said to stem from. The number of plays is significant as eighteen is also thought to represent ‘a great number’ of things.
I remember hearing this word in a variety show and having no idea what it really meant. At the time, I assumed it had something to do with karaoke as the artist being interviewed went on to talk about her go-to karaoke songs. It makes a lot more sense now that I’ve learned more about the word!
猫 (cat) + 車 (vehicle) = 猫車 nekoguruma (wheelbarrow)
Again there are a number of different theories regarding the origin of this word. One is that the sound of a wheelbarrow moving is like a cat. Another is that wheelbarrows are long and thin, making them easy to move through relatively narrow spaces – something which cats are good at doing too.
Nowadays, 手押し車 (
I think that this reiterates to learners of any language that putting two words together may just end up referring to another word with an entirely different meaning. I’m not a fan of Google Translate but I find that Google Images can be really useful for double checking the meaning of some vocabulary.
I am a bit late to the party with this post, but this is something I wanted to write about anyway. It’s been really interesting reading about the origins of words like this, which also led me to the useful Japanese website Gogen AllGuide. I think that these words having such unusual component kanji actually makes them a bit easier to remember!
Have you struggled with this type of word before? Let me know in the comments 🙂