Japanese words with a different meaning from their component kanji

As a Japanese learner, you’ve probably seen the news on Ariana Grande’s tattoo fail online. If not, I’ll briefly fill you in on what happened.

七 (seven) + 輪 (ring, circle) = 七輪 (barbeque grill)!?

The singer intended to get a tattoo meaning ‘7 Rings’ (the name of her latest single) in Japanese on her hand. She posted an image of her new tattoo on social media last week.

However she may have been relying a bit too much upon Google Translate, since the tattoo she ended up with doesn’t quite mean what she intended it to. It turns out that the kanji compound she opted for is read as shichirin, which is the name for the small barbeque grills you find at yakiniku restaurants.

Pictures from Instagram: left is the original tattoo, the right is the revised version

Soon after being shared online, a lot of her fans were quick to look up the meaning of the tattoo and were pretty confused. Ariana then quickly got her tattoo changed to try and get the meaning closer to ‘7 Rings’.

Aside from not giving her future tattoo a quick search online, I think a lot of people studying Japanese may have seen the tattoo and not immediately thought of a barbeque grill.

Why does this happen in Japanese?

One reason for this is ateji (当て字). Ateji is the name given to words borrowed from other languages (mostly Chinese), where the kanji for that word were chosen based on their pronunciation rather than their meaning.

This is mostly the case for older loanwords, as newer loanwords are usually written with katakana.

However, you may see it in relation to the names of various countries, particularly in newspapers. For instance:

KanjiKana/ RomajiName in Katakana/ RomajiEnglish
えい / eiイギリス / igirisuEngland
ふつ / futsuフランス / furansuFrance
どく / dokuドイツ / doitsuGermany
西せい / seiスペイン / supeinSpain
ごう / gouオーストラリア / oosutorariaAustralia
か / kaカナダ / kanadaCanada
いん / inインド / indoIndia
い / iイタリア / itariaItaly

Sometimes these ateji readings are used in words in literature and TV to give them an artistic flair. If this is something you want to learn more about, I recommend checking out BuSensei’s social media feeds as he regularly posts about interesting kanji usage.

Another reason for this is that modern words are contractions of old sayings or idioms, which there are some examples of below.

Seeing the story about Ariana inspired me to look up other words which have a different meaning to the sum of the component kanji.

Here’s a few other words in Japanese which fall into this category.

馬 (horse) + 鹿 (deer) = 馬鹿 baka (idiot)

This is probably the most famous example amongst Japanese learners (although often written in hiragana), since we see it so much in the media.

The etymology of baka is contested, but there are two main theories. Baka could be a word derived from an old Chinese idiom (meaning ‘to point at a deer and call it a horse’, ie. deliberately misleading someone) or a loanword from Sanskrit.

寿 (longevity) + 司 (administer; servant) = 寿司 sushi

Like baka, sushi is thought to have two different origins.

The first is that it comes from the word 久し (ひさし/ hisashi), meaning long lasting (as in 久しぶり). This is why the kanji compound is made up of the kanji for longevity and the kanji for servant.

The second (ateji origin) is thought to be from the word ‘酸し’, (すし, meaning sour) which refers to the vinegar mixed with rice to help preserve the fish it was served with.

皮 (skin) + 肉 (meat, flesh) =  皮肉 hiniku (irony)

The origin for this compound is said to come from a longer phrase 皮肉骨髄 (literally meaning “skin meat bones marrow”) attributed to Buddhism in ancient China. ‘Bones and marrow’ were thought to show essential understanding, in contrast to ‘skin and meat’ which represented superficiality.

Consequently, 皮肉 was used as a way to criticise those who were unable to understand the true nature of something. This then developed into its modern meaning of irony.

(spear, halberd) + 盾 (shield) = 矛盾 mujun (contradiction)

This word too comes from Chinese. There is a story of a man who was selling spears and shields. He said that the spear and the shield were the strongest of their kind; the spear could not be beaten by any shield, and the shield could not be beaten by any spear. One person then asked, “what happens when you use the spear against the shield?”, which the seller was unable to answer.

This Youtube video explains the origin of the Chinese word better than I can:

十八 (18) + 番 (number) = 十八番 ohako (one’s special talent, party trick)

There are a few different potential origins for this word, but one of the most popular is to do with kabuki. The 歌舞伎十八番 (kabuki juuhachiban, ”Eighteen Best Kabuki Plays”) were a collection of plays chosen by the famous Ichikawa Danjuro line of kabuki actors. These were stored in a box to keep them safe, which is where the modern meaning is said to stem from. The number of plays is significant as eighteen is also thought to represent ‘a great number’ of things.

I remember hearing this word in a variety show and having no idea what it really meant. At the time, I assumed it had something to do with karaoke as the artist being interviewed went on to talk about her go-to karaoke songs. It makes a lot more sense now that I’ve learned more about the word!

猫 (cat) + 車 (vehicle) = 猫車 nekoguruma (wheelbarrow)

Again there are a number of different theories regarding the origin of this word. One is that the sound of a wheelbarrow moving is like a cat. Another is that wheelbarrows are long and thin, making them easy to move through relatively narrow spaces – something which cats are good at doing too.

Nowadays, 手押し車 (teoshiguruma) and 一輪車 (ichirinsha) are used as well as 猫車, which I think is a shame. The mental image of a cat wheelbarrow always makes me smile and sticks in my mind more easily!

In closing…

I think that this reiterates to learners of any language that putting two words together may just end up referring to another word with an entirely different meaning. I’m not a fan of Google Translate but I find that Google Images can be really useful for double checking the meaning of some vocabulary.

I am a bit late to the party with this post, but this is something I wanted to write about anyway. It’s been really interesting reading about the origins of words like this, which also led me to the useful Japanese website Gogen AllGuide. I think that these words having such unusual component kanji actually makes them a bit easier to remember!

Have you struggled with this type of word before? Let me know in the comments 🙂