Welcome to Kanji Curiosity | The Basics | Glossary
If you asked me to refer in Japanese to four species of Antarctic penguins, I might try to squeeze ペンギン (pengin: penguin), 4種類 (yon shurui: four kinds), and いる (iru: to exist) into a sentence. In the penguin sign I’ve mentioned (yes, we’re still talking about it!), ペンギン and 4種類 certainly appear. But instead of いる, we find this:
生息する (seisoku suru: to inhabit, live) life + to live
Here’s the relevant text again:
南極 (nankyoku: South Pole) south + pole
種類 (shurui: kind, type) kind + kind
I would have been hard pressed to produce this brilliantly compact translation, partly because the English and Japanese don’t match up very well here. The text above literally translates as “four kinds of penguins that inhabit the South Pole.”
Another unexpected thing—生息する looks like a verb, and indeed it is: “to inhabit, live.” But in the text above, 生息する functions as a verbal adjective modifying “species.” To understand the syntax, try replacing 生息する with 住んでいる (sunde iru: residing). The following phrasing may look more familiar:
But it also leaves me with the sense that the penguins are paying some kind of rent or mortgage in Antarctica. So as not to put any kind of financial strain on the poor birds, let’s revert to the original phrase, and let’s see what’s really going on with 生息.
As you know, this compound breaks down as follows:
生息 (seisoku: inhabiting, living) life + to live
Even though 息 means “to live” in this word, the original definition of 息 (SOKU, iki) is “breath,” and that’s still its most common meaning. In fact, you can remember the kun-yomi by thinking of “icky” (iki) breath. And the on-yomi, SOKU, sounds a little like “suck,” as in “to suck in breath.”
Breathing Is the Basis for Life
What do you suppose this term means?
虫の息 (mushi no iki)
We usually interpret 虫 as insect, so is this expression about an insect’s breath?! I somehow never think of insects as breathing; I mean, I know they must, but I just can’t imagine it. On a freezing cold day, do you ever see a haze of vapor rising from a trail of ants?
As we saw long, long ago, 虫 can also mean “weak.” That appears to be the meaning in this word:
虫の息 (mushi no iki: faint breathing, almost dead)
weak + breath
Breath is the basis for life. Or, we could say, it’s the root of life:
息の根 (ikinone: life) breath + root
You may know 根 from 大根 (daikon: large radish, big + root), which features the on-yomi of this kanji, as opposed to the kun-yomi ne.
Breath is the root of life. That’s lovely! A root is at the base of many forms of life, enabling plants to live. Breathing also makes it possible to live. Think of breath as a cordless version of a root.
We often associate roots with family connections—specifically, ancestors, the ones at the top of a family tree. Wait a minute—if family tree roots are at the top, then the tree is growing upside down!
Anyway, if you travel the family tree in the other direction, you’ll find descendants. And as it turns out, 息 can refer to descendants. So 息 may be the root of life, but it’s at the non-rooting end of the family tree.
At the link, you’ll find words in which 息 means “son” or “child,” as well as “interest,” in the financial sense.
Shortness of Breath
If breathing is one of those necessities in life, you can see how shortness of breath would be a problem. Here’s a good way of talking about that:
窒息 (chissoku: suffocation; choking)
to choke, suffocate + breath
The first kanji is quite cool. It’s 穴 (ana: hole) combined with 至 (SHI, ita(ru)), which means “to reach” but acts phonetically here to express “block.” Blocking a hole? That’s suffocation or choking! With 窒息, you can block either the windpipe or the esophagus. How convenient!
Here’s a less dramatic and less dangerous shortness of breath:
息切れ (ikigire: breathlessness) breath + to be interrupted
If you insert 急 (KYŪ, iso(gu): to hurry) into the center, another viable word emerges:
息急き切る (ikisekikiru: to pant, gasp)
breath + to hurry + to be interrupted
The yomi of 急 here is se? Oh, it turns out that 急く(seku: to hurry) is a common word among old folks, though less so among the younger crowd.
In addition to a striking profusion of horizontal lines at the beginning of 窒息, I notice two instances of the “heart” radical , which is called 下心 (shitagokoro: bottom + heart) if it sits at the bottom of a kanji. When you’re out of breath, your heart pounds, but of course that has nothing to do with the doubling of hearts here. The in 急 represents the urgent feelings of someone who’s trying to reach a thing (or a place, I would imagine). And the radical in 息 means the “essence of life,” says Henshall.
At any rate, having two hearts in a word doesn’t always bode well:
愚息 (gusoku: my (foolish) son) foolish + son
愛息 (aisoku: beloved son) love + son
If you look deep inside the first kanji, you’ll find , so once again we have two hearts!
Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz.