steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Containing Multitudes

Japanese words often have a wide range of meanings. For example, there's ataru (当たる): I've cut and pasted this from my flashcard program (Memrise - I recommend it). I could have inserted punctuation in the relevant places, but I think the effect is conveyed more feelingly without it:

ataru = to be hit
to lash out at to be affixed to apply to to be a hit to be afflicted to be selected (in a lottery, etc.) (in baseball) to be hitting well (of fruit, etc.) to be bruised to be equivalent to to lie (in the direction of) to undertake to be applicable to be assigned to face to go well to be successful to be stricken (by food poisoning, heat, etc.) to be on a hitting streak to be in contact to confront to be right on the money (of a prediction, criticism, etc.) to treat (esp. harshly) to be unnecessary to be called upon (by the teacher) to touch to spoil to win to strike to check (i.e. by comparison) to probe into (in fishing) to feel a bite to shave to feel (something) out

I especially like words where the meanings include ones that are antonyms or (better still) near antonyms of each other, such as hitting and being hit, or to be successful and to be stricken. Of course, it sends my mind back to English, which has no shortage of similar artefacts, even in this semantic area. To be touched or struck could be a good or disastrous thing, depending largely on who's doing the touching - a god, the heat, elves (as in elf-stroke), genius.

As ever, a big part of the appeal of learning Japanese (and no doubt any language) is to make oneself more aware of the peculiarities of one's own word-weathered mind, carved as it is into eccentric peaks and whorls by the constant swirl of linguistic currents.

The other day, I imagined (or remembered?) an Addams Family cartoon in which Morticia is discovered sprinkling dust over the furniture, and responds to an enquiry, "Oh, I'm just doing the dusting". "To dust" is one of my favourite auto-antonyms, perhaps because it's such a simple-looking, common word. Who cares whether "cleave" means the opposite of itself, when we don't often use it in either sense? But dust? That gets under one's skin.
Tags: language, nippon notes
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