Happy Birthday to Whom?

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

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What do you think the following word means?

虚誕 (kyotan)

The first kanji, (KYO, KO, muna(shii)), means “empty” or “false,” as we saw long ago. You may recognize from 誕生日 (tanjōbi: birthday, to be born + to be born + day), where means “to be born, birth.” So 虚誕 is a false birth?! No, has other meanings, and the pertinent one in 虚誕 relates to the original definition of .

In , the radical is (words). That’s not entirely obvious, because every component in can serve as a radical!

All Can Be Radicals …

Meanwhile, is “to stretch, extend,” also acting phonetically in to express “big.” With “big, stretched words,” you have bragging or exaggerations. Thus, originally meant “deception” or “false.”

That’s the meaning in our star word, as the breakdown indicates:

虚誕 (kyotan: exaggerated talk)     false + false

More False Talk …

That’s not the whole etymological story, though. The word 降誕 (kōtan: holy birth, royal birth, to descend (from heaven) + birth) originally meant “making a fuss about a holy (or royal) birth.” That makes sense, given the exaggerations inherent in back then. Consequently, “birth” became an extended meaning of , which we can define in an assortment of ways:

(TAN: to be born, nativity, false, to be arbitrary)

“To be born” is now the main meaning, as in 誕生日 and its root:

誕生 (tanjō: birth, creation, formation)     to be born + to be born

Breech Birth …

Words for a Proper Birthday Celebration …

We saw 誕生 two weeks ago in this koala sign:


The Words in the Sign …

The kanji doesn’t just factor into words about early koala development. It also pops up in words that span a lifetime (koala, human, or otherwise):

The one-year celebration of a birth:

初誕生 (hatsutanjō: first birthday)
     first + to be born + to be born

The 100-year celebration of a birth:

生誕百年 (seitan hyakunen: 100th-birthday anniversary)
     to be born + to be born + 100 + years

Depending on what order you’re reading in, you may have just seen 生誕 (seitan: birth) on a side page.

Whoa! From the first birthday to the hundredth in a matter of seconds! Where did the time go?!

The kanji can even help us talk about life after death:

再誕 (saitan: resurrection (of a company or school, etc.))
     again + to be born

This is an uncommon word. People usually use 再生 (saisei: resurrection, rebirth, again + to live) to refer to the resurrection of a company, school, airline, and so on.

Speaking of death, it seems that today’s blog has come to an end. But there’s life after death in the form of a Verbal Logic Quiz! Enjoy!

Verbal Logic Quiz …

4 Responses to “Happy Birthday to Whom?”

  1. avatar Laurence Wiig Says:


    Very nice work on “tanjoubi no tan.” When I saw the koala announcement, “fukuro kara deru,” it reminded me of a sign I once saw at a ski resort in Yamagata Prefecture. I believe the name of the little restaurant was “Boku-n-chi” specializing in “o-fukuro no aji.” Can you please explain when Japanese use the word “fukuro” to refer to one’s (human) mother? Arigatoxiexie. LW in OR

  2. avatar Eve Kushner Says:

    Ah, fukuro is coming up next week (including the incredibly surprising associations w/ mothers)! The blog will probably span a few weeks, so the mother part may not come till Part 2 or something. Thanks for the note!

  3. avatar Hiroshi Says:

    Eve mentions 再誕 and 再生, but here is another word for the same meaning which is as common as 再生. 再建 (saiken; to rebuild), which breaks down as “again + build” must be easy to remember due to its straightforward break down.
    Unfortunately, this word is heard on a daily basis nowadays, General Motors, Japan Airlines, etc. As she already says, 再誕 is uncommon and not listed in many dictionaries.

  4. avatar Eve Kushner Says:

    Thanks, Hiroshi-san. Speaking of uncommon words, a different native speaker tells me that 虚誕 (kyotan) is quite uncommon and that she and her husband had never heard of it.

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