In which he is a Japanese scholar


A kind of dictionary

An ado at Vunex occasions a brain adventure; in which he catches a glimpse of the woman he loves; and reflects on intelligence in women on the example of the divine Sei Shonagon.

How can you not love a friend who in an offhand note asks you to “elaborate the semantic range of koto“? Others might tell you about a football game, or ask for a girl’s number. Not Conrad. His precious head forever mills Great Thoughts and his golden mouth issues nothing but Abstruse But Profound Truths.

Really, if he ever asked me, how could I say anything but “yes”?

But on with the story.

Conrad reports that Mr H (that’s “Mr Martin Heidegger” to you, and not the author of the delightful Giornale Nuovo) — who made it his business practice to support his philosophical claims with fabricated etymologies (very Borges-like), having run out of Greek etymology to subvert, moved late in life into the business of bemystifying Japanese. (This is a kind of industry with western intellectuals, which the Japanese, seeing the clear strategic benefit of appearing inscrutable, have done their best to stoke). Per the self-same Mr Martin, then, the origin of the word koto, meaning more or less, language, or words is:

the appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace


(“Virgin Chicken” anyone?)

Anyway, to please Conrad’s precious head, I rummaged in an old etymological dictionary. And what I found turned out to be an adventure:

1. In the beginning, God made one word: koto. Which the Japanese did not know how to write. Sometimes they wrote it with the Chinese character shi, 事, meaning “things, affairs”; sometimes with the Chinese character yen 言, meaning “language”.

(Is it not a pity that Mr Martin’s informers omitted to tell him this? Do you also not sense here a missed opportunity for some seriously profound BS? May not intellectual history be rightly said to be the history of missed opportunities?)

2. Eventually, the Japanese sorted out the spelling convention, but a new semantic fissure appeared. Now there were two words, one, koto, written as 言, which seemed to mean profound stuff (the Vunex sort) while another, kotoba, initially written as 言端, or “language bits”, referred to “those things coming out of the mouth” (in other words, the Heaventree sort of thing). As stated, this was written 言端, but 端 (ba) is hard to memorize and even harder to write, so the Heian gentlemen who were not pedants (to put it mildly) frequently wrote it instead with characters they knew better: 羽 (wa) (meaning wings or fearhers) or 葉 (ha) (meaning leaves).

3. Then in the 10th century (I think) a famous poet wrote a famous poem:


yamato wa
hito no kokoro wo tanetoshite
yorozu no koto no ha to zo narikeru

in which the central poetic device was the verbal/ideographic conceit of confusing words of love (koto, or kotoba) with the falling leaves of autumn (ha). You can see the dynamite potential of this trope. That fixed it forever: from now on kotoba would be 言葉 (“language-leaves”).


Now, this is as exciting as I can make it (and perhaps not entirely uninteresting).

But then there is a punchline (there always is, is there not). It made me skip a heartbeat.

And this is it.

The same dictionary entry also says that Sei Shonagon, the semi-divine authoress of the Pillow Book, my Sei Shonagon, the truest love of my life (see my post on her here) wrote the word kotoba as — 詞.

Why does this seem important? It is important because it shows Sei Shonagon’s personality, her entire attitude to life in a nutshell, as it were, in one little gesture, in a single Chinese ideogram. (Which is perhaps the only instance of a Chinese ideogram functioning the way they are sometimes said to function: one character containing in it everything, by symbol and reference, the whole truth, the world).

Let me try to explain.

詞 (ci, “works; phrases; classical Chinese poem; word; diction”) is not a particularly obscure Chinese character in China, but it wasn’t one particularly common in Japan. Semantically, it seems to cover nearly everything the word kotoba seems to express, and Sei Shonagon’s use of it is thus certainly an example of matching well a Chinese ideogram to Japanese meaning, a difficult task rarely well accomplished, and only by those with fluent knowledge of Chinese.

This is a profound and lost art. Since Sei Shonagon’s day, Japanese script has been fixed by government fiat. Today there is no more liberty in picking and choosing Chinese ideograms to match one’s meaning: there is only the right way and the wrong way to write. (And the ministry of education fixes which is which).

But even in her time, few had the learning to practice it — or even follow it as a spectator. Because the use of ci, in departing from the standard writing practice of the time, requires the reader to be a good sinologist, a person of considerable erudition and learning. And since Sei Shonagon does not explain anywhere how to read the character — she forces her reader to guess what she means from the context — it is also a kind of riddle; or perhaps a kind of inside joke.

Now, in Sei Shonagon’s time women often wrote in hiragana, a syllabary, which was then sometimes referred to as “women’s script”. It is entirely phonetic and consist of 40-some characters, all told. The entire Tale of Genji was written in it. Not only did women write in it, but men, when writing to women, also wrote in it. Hiragana thus became the script of love poetry, and, more generally, all poetry in general. The flowing roundness of the script, and its ease, were thought to be feminine and poetic.

Men — unless they were composing Japanese poetry — wrote in Chinese script, often in what was presumed to be Chinese; and which was — as one of my guests once observed — really, really bad Chinese, too. (To save them face, one sometimes refers to it as Sino-Japanese).

Against this background, Sei Shonagon wrote not only beautiful Japanese (as many of her contemporaries did), but she wrote it in a mixed script, which was relatively new exercise in her time (and the way Japanese is written today). This means that she used Chinese characters for nouns and roots of verbs and adjectives; and hiragana for inflection particles, and interjections.

Now, by using Chinese script, she was refusing to be confined to the female ghetto. But when using Chinese characters, she did not merely follow the established practices of the (men) of the day, but used whatever Chinese characters she thought did the job best, in the light of her own erudition and taste. And thereby she signaled her refusal to just copy the guys. She was saying, in fact, I am not a guy in drag. I am something better.

Which certainly she was.

In her time, Sei Shonagon was admired (even feared for her tongue) but not liked. And still is: admired but not liked. This does not surprise: people do not like supremely intelligent women. And it is not just men: women do not like them any more. Everyone, it seems, fears the intelligent woman. (I wonder why that is).

Conceited, people say about such a woman. It is meant as a value judgment, a smear of character. But is being proud of one’s own intellectual attainment — conceited? Or is it just being — true to oneself? And what is an intelligent woman to do? Play dumb? And why? The issue is not truth: surely, to say “Conrad is very erudite” is as true in my lips as it is in his. Nor can it be immoral, for since when it telling the truth a sin?

No, it isn’t politic for a woman to be seen as supremely intelligent.

But you, my women readers, modern day Sei Shonagons all of you, you can rest in knowing that here at least it is OK for you to be supremely intelligent. We would not have you any other way.


Fact-checking, the other Sei Shonagon, the real-time one, commented: “Generally speaking, people do not like intelligent women because they are afraid of being fooled or manipulated by them. (It is a typical reaction of the not-so-bright to treat with suspicion anything they do not understand). But Sei Shonagon did not hide her intelligence precisely because she did not think it was dangerous to anyone; and she did not think it was dangerous to anyone because she had no intention of using it for nefarious purposes. (Indeed, that her intelligence could be put to such a use did not even occur to her). Like about half of all very intelligent people, she was also decent. (The root-cause of her pride is her honesty: I am superbly intelligent, she says with an engaging smile). There is no indication anywhere that she manipulated or took advantage of anyone. And her biography is — from the conventional point of view — one of failure. She did not become the emperor’s mistress, or a wife of a leading aristocrat, nor an abbess of an important nunnery — probably because she did not try to go about it in the sort of manipulative way which, for someone with her intelligence, should have been a piece of cake if she only deigned to manipulate. The supremely intelligent people who do make it to the top are the sort who manage to hide their intelligence and come across like folksy simpletons. Some major political figures come to mind. Therefore one could suggest that there is no need to brand the conceited as somehow bad. It is the apparently humble who pose real danger.”

She says it so much better than me. Perhaps because she is so supremely intelligent.

  1. “Conceited, people say about such a woman.”

    Ne ultra crepidam, sutrix.

    Good, unpredictable post. Blessed are the unmeek!

  2. Peony

    To be honest, I didn’t think I would be back this way quite so soon. This post, however, left me feeling slightly bewildered so I thought I would chime in a bit. First, can I sugest that what you describe as a lost art is in fact hardly a lost art. Modern Japanese “play” with kanji everyday! Journalists, novelists, even scholars, for example find it useful in coining new terms…. Maybe 50 or so Japanese emails (private and business) come through Peony-headquarters everyday and many, many of those use kanji in ways just like Sei shonagon—even my dear husband (not the sharpest tool in the shed, I would add) cannot resist this game…. And this brings me to my next point which is this activity is perhaps less a pastime of intelligence as it is of an ability to “play” (asobi) or even of a will to“iki.” Some of the most intelligent people I know—even in their private correspondence with me, do not engage in this because they are—well, very serious types. Brilliant but not playful? It takes smarts, sure, but more it takes creativity and the ability to laugh at oneself (not take oneself too seriously…)

    Also, are intelligent women seen as a threat? I move around a large empire, as you know, and this has not been my experience. In the Western reaches of the empire (Hollywood) an intelligent woman is actually seen as the anti-threat! What is the threat is the drop-dead gorgeous woman with the perfect body… and here in Japan? Well, my several startlingly intelligent women friends do quite nicely, thank you. I think maybe here in the Eastern part of my realm, if you go around *advertising yourself* as an intelligent woman, you might at least need some kind of prestigious university degree, prestigious job title or some type of accomplishment in the arts. In Japan, people tend to dislike “all talk” but if you have got the goods to back it up—well, as they say in California “go girl!” Intelligence is seen as an attribute not a threat on a woman,,, you know the japanese expression of getting sick of a beautiful wife in 3 days? Well, I have heard men on a number of occasions say that what they are looking for in a woman is intelligence…(very smart men for saying so too, i thought)

    Even your true love, she was not disliked for her intelligence. She had a vitriolic personality. But she wasn’t even disliked for that—it was too long ago to really “know”—but when you read any of the heian period nikki, you have to keep in mind that they were _public documents_ not private diaries (like European diaries) and their aim (their objective) was not self-expression but rather persuasion. It is essential to keep in mind that the court was dominated by an intense rivalry between 2 cousin empresses…. It was one of the most lively rivalries in all Japanese literary history and the superstar authoresses of the day were divided along Party Lines: sei shonagon on one side and murasaki shikibu, akazoe emon and my personal love, izumi shikibu on the other…. So any insult to sei shonagon functioned as a disparaging of Empress Akiko (she has another reading to her name but you can ask your fact-checker).

    Finally, being humble– it is a beautiful thing in either “agreable sex”.

    Sorry for the long comment… it’s a 3 day weekend and I am down in the salt-mines till Tuesday. Peony is feeling petulant again…Looking forward to seeing the moon, though.

  3. Peony, darling:

    Yes, come to think about it, I have seen people intentionally miswrite their Chinese ideographs (I have seen this rarely perhaps because of the type of people I was with in Japan); and I would have to agree with you that it is more along the lines of asobi rather than scholarship: the days when one could turn to Kangxi Zidian to find a Chinese ideograph which expresses better his Japanese word are over.

    Of course, scholarship can be a kind of play (for which see Conrad’s blog) — to him it is asobi, to us it is scholarship.

    Well, let us say that our impressions of how people respond to supremely intelligent women have not been the same. But many people today have a negative reaction to Sei Shonagon (see Chris’s post here back in March or April) — and that hardly has to do with Empress Sadako.

    And — finally — I do not see much of anything beautiful about being humble. That it is beautiful is an arbitrary pronouncement designed to appeal to our gut reactions but without much intellectual content (like claiming that “truth is always simple”).

    Though I try to be humble for tactical purposes — so as not to piss people off — I do not admire humility much in others. It is a kind of deception.

    But then of all birds, I like the peacock best.

    There is I suppose something people sometimes call intellectual humility — ability to respond properly to criticism, to revise one’s own views, admit that one has gone wrong — but perhaps one should better characterize it as love of knowledge, that is, wanting to arrive at the truth, not humility.

  4. Ah, and one more thing: we don’t know much about the supposed rivalry between SS and Murasaki Shikibu. All we know that the latter wrote a rather nasty comment about the former in which she disparaged SS’s conceit and her Chinese scholarship as a sham, which sounds to me like envy just of the sort I describe here.

    In fact, there is a novel I would like to read — it has not been written yet — about the relationship of the two women. It would be immensely difficult to write because they were both very intelligent and, as Parnicki observed, one cannot write a novel about a person more intelligent than oneself. (“Narcissus and GOldmund” being a sad illustration of that truth).

  5. Peony

    “Ah, and one more thing: we don’t know much about the supposed rivalry between SS and Murasaki Shikibu. All we know that the latter wrote a rather nasty comment about the former in which she disparaged SS’s conceit and her Chinese scholarship as a sham, which sounds to me like envy just of the sort I describe here.”

    We actually know more than that, but…

    Humility is less about decption, I would argue, as about being able to step back from oneself (not to take oneself too seriously as some are want to do) and also being able to respect others humanity as well. These are– of course– semantics.

    That’s all I have time for. Over and out.

  6. Peony


    The truth is always simple. It’s as simple as apples and oranges…

  7. About humility: redefining the terms of discussion allows us to make anything seem like anything else. :)

    “The truth is always simple.”

    Pardonnez moi, Peony, nothing personal, but this sentence is cosmic nonsense. :)

  8. Peony

    Nothing personal taken GS. Friends till the end, right?

  9. Ever. Always. And I mean it.

    I really do mean no offense. And I think I know what you want to say it when you say it, but I don’t think the statement “truth is always simple” is in any sense true itself. It could be used in so many different senses and applied to so many situations in which it very well might not be true. For instance, the question “did you or did you not sleep with your mother?” may have many different answers, all of them true, depending on the situation of the speaker: at one point Oedipus might say no, at another time yes, or I don’t know, and each time he’d be speaking the truth. And what about those situation when no one knows the answer? Simple formulas are good for managing vehicular traffic, but not for discovering truth.

  10. Hello! Allow me to add that that poem’s author (Ki no Tsurayuki, opening his introduction to the Kokinshuu) may not have invented that word as such: there’s a “koto no he” in the Manyoshu (うつせみの八十言のへは繁くとも争ひかねて我を言なすな) which many believe to be an eastern-accented form of “koto no ha”, which if true would make that phrase a few centuries older (at least in the Eastern part of Japan). As usual, there is just enough data to be tantalizing.

    On using 詞, there is a passage in the introduction to the Kojiki which includes it:


    “… Both the language (言) and ideas (意) of old were ‘pure[r]’ (朴) , and so when putting them in writing, one encounters difficulty in re the characters. When all characters are used for meaning (訓), the words (詞) do not match the [intended] meanings (心). When they are strung together entirely for their sound, the result turns out too long.”

    詞-as-“kotoba” was unbelievably common right through Edo and even early modern times, and as you observe has entirely vanished now thanks to standardization. This means that encountering it in a text instantly gives an old-timey flavor, kind of like a long S or “&c.” in English. (For this reason I am very fond of it and use it in my personal life whenever I can.)

  11. Matt, mon-ami, thank you. So, at last we meet. (Is this like a scene from an old samurai movie?)

    It is so nice to hear from those in the know…

    I am no scholar at all, but will henceforth write kotoba with 詞.

    I hope I made it clear that I had no intention of suggesting that the Kokinshu poem was the first instance of spelling “words-leaves”. All it did is — probably — weigh heavily in its favor.

    Although, clearly, my suggestion that the poem somehow fixed it to the exclusion of 詞 is clearly erroneous (since, as you say, 詞 remained incredibly common).

    I am very pleased that your Palace is called “no-sword” and I take it as my excuse not to disembowel myself for my errors. :)

    Thanks for dropping by. I hope for more intercyberstitial encounters! And, of course, see you at your place. I am sure you serve decent, pure Uji tea, not the Saitama shlock my guests are obliged to drink here.

  12. Oh, my pleasure! It’s always tough to tell who invented what. Certainly though Ki no Tsurayuki was very, very influential.

    Caffeind at languagehat has called me out — there are other compound words in use that still use 詞 for “kotoba”, but they are all basically remnants from pre-simplification that were too rare or specialized for the language planners to bother issuing pronouncements on.

  13. Well, it only shows you how unprofessional my fact checkers have been. They could have looked up 詞 in the same Kojien to figure that out, eh? I’ll saw their arms off when they get back.

    Say, do you have any Daiginjo to go with that Uji-cha? :)

  14. I’m afraid my better half is become a sommelier. All I have is a barbaric grape-based substitute…

  15. Ah, well. What to do.
    But which way do I point my geta?

  16. PS Tried to leave a greeting at The No Sword Headquarters (and check on availability of any booze, grape or rice derived, I am not particular) but have been akismetted down the drain, alas. What a way to greet guests. Come to think about it, maybe I did mention Viagra too many times. (Though I did spell it “詞”, of course).

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