Daily Archives: 27 May 2010

Wordcatcher Tales: Kamaboko heisha

While poking around looking for something else in my Spahn & Hadamitzky Japanese Character Dictionary: With Compound Lookup via Any Kanji (Nichigai Associates, 1989), I came across a wonderful, but sadly obsolescent compound, 蒲鉾兵舎 kamaboko heisha, which seems to be yielding to a katakanago loan from English: クォンセット kuonsetto ‘Quonset hut’. A Quonset hut is a Kamaboko(-shaped) barracks. Nice image.

The 舎 sha of 兵舎 heisha ‘barracks (lit. soldier-lodge)’ also occurs in 牛舎gyuusha ‘cowshed’, 鶏舎 keisha ‘chicken coop’, 犬舎 kensha ‘dog kennel’, 豚舎 tonsha ‘pigpen’, and 田舎 inaka ‘countryside (lit. paddy-lodge)’. It indicates a fairly rustic or rudimentary sort of accommodation.

The kanji components of 蒲鉾 kamaboko ‘boiled fish paste, fish cake’ are less straightforward. The 鉾 hoko is a kind of heavy pole weapon more commonly written 矛, which Spahn and Hadamitzky gloss rather loosely as ‘halberd‘, which has a much more complicated head on it. I suppose the fish paste is (or was) extruded into long spears before being cut and packaged into standard blocks.

The character 蒲 is usually pronounced gama and means ‘cattail, bulrush‘ (although many people seem to confuse it with 蝦蟇 gama ‘bullfrog’). A couple of summers ago in Japan, we met two of my wife’s former students who hailed from 蒲郡 Gamagōri on the coast below Nagoya. One tutored English and the other tutored Italian, and they both admitted to being mildly embarrassed to tell people they were from an outlying district whose name can be translated as ‘Cattail County’.

The principal Sino-Japanese reading of 蒲 is FU, as in 蒲団 (usu. 布団) futon, but it can also occur in a crazy kanji representation of tampopo ‘dandelion’, 蒲公英, which is usually written in kana.

Even though its use may be fading with regard to Quonset huts, the modifier かまぼこ型 or カマボコ型 kamaboko-gata ‘kamaboko-shape’ still thrives as a descriptor of all manner of semicylindrical objects, like some kamaboko-gata pataa ‘mallet putters’ in golf.

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