山村訓長但知覓

The Sanchon Hunjang
(usually clicking on the photos yields an enlarged version)

1/01/2008

 

Bumpy

Looking up Chinese characters is a real drudgery. The major reason is that there is no good Chinese dictionary--i.e. one where there is one and only one allowable position for each graph in the dictionary, thus facilitating easy lookup--in widespread use. Fortunately Chinese is not as ideographic as some would have the innocent believe, so most characters have a pretty good hint at its pronunciation. But when you run up against one that doesn't, or one that you can't recall, you're back to counting strokes or guessing at significs and counting strokes. And that can be tricky. Take a look at this example:




It's not a particularly obscure character, used mostly now for "Asia." Where are you going to begin looking for a radical? (정답: 二) And how are you going to count those strokes? (정답: 8획) Those "staircase patterns" can be either 1 or 3 strokes, depending on direction! Few people can even write 亞 correctly and most just go for the variant 亜. This second option is far easier to write and identify (and thus count) individual strokes.

On the subject of 亞, before it was borrowed because of its sound "아" to mean Asia, it was used to mean "second." We can see this in the posthumous name given to the most revered of Confucius' disciples, 孟軻, who is referred to as "the second sage 亞聖" in Confucian shrines. When transcribing foreign place names into Chinese, the temptation to use characters used to write derogatory terms was generally avoided. Curious how Asia got stuck in "second" place.

In the same class of know-em-or-you-don't characters without any built-in pronunciation hints, there is the curious pair 요 and 철. The same staircase element that makes 亞 difficult in spades comes into play in these two words to a lesser degree. The meaning of these guys is pretty easy to remember, though. And, by happenstance, the shape of 凹 even holds a bit of a hint of the Korean vowel that is it's pronunciation. The first means "innie," and as you might guess, the second means "outie." Must have been used originally to describe belly-buttons. ^^

Unlike many, these two words are not your from-the-dawn-of-time type characters. They are not found in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) Shuowenjiezi, China's first dictionary, and are not found until the Yupian (abt. 543), from which Korean 한자 dictionaries take their name, and the Guangyun (abt. 1007). This means they are not found in the true Chinese of the classical age. But these guys are still used today. And they still mean concave/convex, or "concave and convex" = "bumpy," when they are together.




Due to its resemblance in shape to a certain vulgar gesture, 철 can be seen on several web pages in a newly coined meaning that hasn't found its way into the 옥편 yet. Which brings us to what is perhaps the most famous calligraphic rendition of this character (that doesn't quite happen to have been done by an assassin/national hero).



Bumpy, indeed. ^^


Comments:
I am goign to have to start using that remarkable chinese character a lot more.
 
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