Wordcatcher Tales: minarai, shashou, tetsuya, akuma no daibensha

I learned a few more interesting Japanese etymologies from reading Delayed Departures, Overdue Arrivals: Industrial Familialism and the Japanese National Railways, by Paul H. Noguchi (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1990).

見習い minarai (lit. ‘see-learn’) ‘apprentice’ – The components of this native Japanese term for ‘apprentice’ are not only much easier to recall, but also far more positive than the standard Sino-Japanese term that renders ‘apprentice’ in many compounds, 徒弟 totei lit. ‘useless-younger.brother’. The kanji 徒 appears in such words as 徒心 adagokoro ‘fickle heart’, 徒物 adamono ‘useless thing’, 徒桜 adazakura ‘ephemeral cherry blossom’, 徒者 tadamono ‘ordinary person’, 徒労 torou ‘wasted effort’, 徒食 toshoku ‘life of idleness’, and 徒論 toron ‘worthless argument’.

車掌 shashou ‘conductor’ (lit. ‘car-handler’) – The native Japanese readings for the kanji 掌 include tsukasado(ru) ‘rule, administer, conduct’ and tanagokoro ‘palm, hollow of the hand’ (< ‘hand-heart’). It also occurs in such learned Sino-Japanese compounds as 掌中本 shouchuubon (lit. ‘palm-middle-book’) ‘pocket edition’ and 掌状 shoujou (lit. ‘palm-shape’) ‘palmate’. Train conductors hold our fates in their hands.

徹夜 tetsuya ‘all-nighter’ (lit. ‘pass-night’) – The tetsu in this compound has nothing to do with 鉄道 tetsudou (lit. ‘iron-road’) ‘railroad’. Its native Japanese reading as a verb is tooru ‘pass (by or through)’, always written with a synonymous kanji, 通る. In the JNR, 徹夜 tetsuya meant a 24-hour shift on duty with only 4 hours of sleep.

悪魔の代弁者 akuma no daibensha ‘devil’s advocate’ – When I first encountered just the romanized shape, daibenmono ‘mouthpiece’, in this book, I really wanted to analyze it as 大便物 (lit. ‘large-convenience-stuff’), rendering ‘mouthpiece’ into ‘(bull)shitter’. But the actual kanji are 代弁者 daibensha (lit. ‘change-speech-person’) ‘spokesperson, proxy’. The kanji 弁 ben can also mean dialect, as in 広島弁 Hiroshima-ben ‘Hiroshima dialect’. The kanji 代 dai has three broad clusters of meanings: (1) ‘age, generation, era, reign’, as in 六十代 rokujuudai ‘in one’s sixties’ or 六十年代 rokujuunendai ‘the 1960s’; (2) ‘change, proxy, substitute’, as in 代母 daibo ‘godmother’ or 代名詞 daimeishi ‘pronoun’ (‘proxy noun’); and (3) ‘rate, fee, price, charge’, as in 代金引き換え daikin hikikae ‘C.O.D.’ (‘charge reversal’). Now, add in one devil and you get 悪魔の代弁者 ‘devil’s advocate’.

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