Wordcatcher Tales: -右衛門

Wally Yonamine, whose interesting biography I’ve been reading, has an Okinawan surname that is neither in P. G. O’Neill’s book Japanese Names nor in my Canon Wordtank electronic dictionary. But, of course, both the English and the Japanese Wikipedia entries about him give the kanji used to write Yonamine: 与那嶺.

While consulting O’Neill’s Japanese Names, however, I came across a wonderfully archaic-sounding given name for men, 四万四五右衛門, which is pronounced Yomoshigo_emon, a name that has fewer syllables (or moras) than kanji. The kanji mean ‘4-10000-4-5-right-guard-gate’, and 右 ‘right’ is the one that doesn’t rate its own syllable. The Sino-Japanese reading for 右 is U, so it’s easy to see how the high rounded vowel -u- could get lost in the transitional glide (-w-) from a preceding round vowel (o-) to a following unrounded vowel (-e). The U does get pronounced when it starts the name, as in 右衛門 Uemon ‘right-ward-gate’.

There are many such given names ending in 右衛門 -_emon ‘right-ward-gate’ and one imagines that being a gatekeeper was a rather important function in many a feudal household: 五郎右衛門 Goro_emon ‘5-son-right-ward-gate’, 八郎右衛門 Hachiro_emon ‘8-son-right-ward-gate’, 孫右衛門 Mago_emon ‘grandchild-right-ward-gate’, 万右衛門 Man_emon ‘10000-right-ward-gate’. Only the last of these fails to provide the environment expected to encourage the -U- to glide away.

Not all ward-gates (garde-portes?) guarded the right gate, or guarded the right side of the gate. Some guarded the left as well: 文左衛門 Bun-za-emon ‘culture-left-ward-gate’ (or ‘literate’?), 権左衛門 Gon-za-emon ‘assistant-left-ward-gate’ (same gon- as in the old words gonsuke ‘manservant’, gonsai ‘concubine’), 茂左衛門 Mon-za-emon ‘lush-left-ward-gate’ (or ‘thick, luxuriant’).

These Japanese names ending in -(za)emon ‘wardgate’ sound to me even more archaic than those ending in -suke ‘servant’, though perhaps not as archaic as Aethelbert or Ealdwulf sound in English. However, they are more equivalent etymologically to English names like Stewart (< steward < ‘sty-warden’) or Lord (< ‘loaf-warden’).


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