I apologize for the limited blogging this week. I'm trying to spend some time with family and friends for the brief time they'll be in town and getting ready for a trip to Washington, DC, so I've neither read nor written as much as I'd like to.
I couldn't help but do a double take at a post in the Corner titled "His Nami, Not My Nami." After confirming that this was not a reference to a certain red-haired anime character, I was still blown away to find a discussion of Japanese and English etymology on one of my favorite blogs. Scrolling down, I dscovered that this quite naturally evolved from this post by notorious Lehigh-slanderer and all-around cool guy Jonah Goldberg.
Jonah begins by wondering, "why do we have to call them tsunamis" as opposed to the more colloquial "tidal waves." I'm not quite sure why we have to, but I always thought there was a distinction between a tidal wave and a tsunami. My understanding has always beem a "tidal wave," which, as Jonah notes, has nothing to do with tidal forces, is an abnormally large wave impacting shore while a "tsunami" is an enormous wave (bigger than a tidal wave) caused by seismic activity. Of course, this is based on nothing other than my observation and use of the English language throughout my life, but I'm pretty sure we reserve the word "tsunami" for waves caused by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. To my ear, "tsunami" also carries the connotation of being much larger than a generic tidal wave.
A Corner reader, attempting to help out, offers this explanation for the word "tsunami," which, unfortunately for him, is terrible. Lights began flashing even after he admitted he's no Japanese scholar when he either confused or mistyped "etymology" as "entymology," two hugely different disciplines.
Anyway, the reader begins with the assertion that "tsunami" does not mean "harbor wave" as Jonah (correctly) understood, but that "tsu" in this case means not "harbor," but "steal." This is, of course, flat out wrong. He likely just looked it up without checking the kanji (Chinese characters), which usually hold the key to meaning in Japanese. He's right that if you simply look up "tsu" you get a kanji (this one: 偸) meaning "steal." I'd never seen this kanji before (it doesn't even show up in a list of common kanji when typing "tsu"), and I've never heard a context in Japanese where one would just use "steal" as a noun.
Looking into the kanji is interesting, though. As I suspected, one may use that kanji as an alternate way to write the verb "nusumu," meaning "to steal." Here is the way nusumu is commonly written: 盗む. I'm assuming, then, you can also write it like this: 偸む. The latter kanji, rather than being used by itself to mean "steal," is used in words that combine it with another kanji. The example that jumps out at me is 偸安する (touan-suru) meaning "to snatch a moment of rest." As you might expect, 安 (an) can mean "rested or peaceful". Thus, 安心 (anshin) meaning "relief or peace of mind." But kanji are often surprising, and many students of Japanese, myself included, first encounter this kanji in the word 安い (yasui) meaning "cheap."
But, I wildly digress. The reader continues by saying that there is no word for "harbor" in Japanese, a claim of which I was immediately suspect. He offers the loanword from English, ハーバー (haabaa), which is valid, but he is apparently unaware of the extremely common 港 (minato), meaning port (clearly a synonym for "harbor" in English) which can be found in words from "airport" (空港) to the kanji for Hong Kong: 香港. So he's really wrong about there being no word for harbor.
Had this reader looked at the kanji in "tsunami," though, everything would have been made clear. Tsunami is written thusly: 津波. It is not broken up, as he suggested into "tsuna" and "mi." Rather, that first kanji is read "tsu" and the second "nami" which does indeed mean "wave." The first kanji is not anywhere near as common as "minato," but it does mean harbor and is found in words such as 入津 (nyuushin) meaning "entering a port" and interestingly, 山津波 (yamatsunami) meaning "landslide." (山 means "mountain") So, I don't know where this guy came up with his conclusion of "a sword that moves like a rope," but he's not even in the ballpark. Readers who know what they're talking about offer the correct explanation in the post I first linked to. The readers there breifly mention kanji readings of Chinese, as opposed to Japanese, origin and explain the inclusion of "harbor" in the word.
Those explanations. of course, are all you really need to read to understand this, but I wanted to write a bit from my own perspective because it was fun for me and was hopefully interesting to someone reading. I could go on to explain Chinese and Japanese kanji readins in Japanese, but at the moment I need some sleep. Perhaps tomorrow.
I do want to note, though, that this is another reason I love the Corner: their wildy divergent but almost uniformly interesting tangents (the notable exception being discussions of Yeats and other interminable poets) that almost always start somewhere in news or politics. Case in point: the other tangent for today was attempting to explain why liberals would like The Lord of the Rings in a philosophical sense.