Welcome to Kanji Curiosity | The Basics | Glossary
If I saw the following word out of context, I would puzzle over the breakdown:
大荒れ (ōare: great storm) big + being wild
I would wonder, exactly who or what is big and being wild? An untamed horse or a pro wrestler would come to mind. The breakdown even sounds illicit, like something in an ad for erotic services (not that I read those). But in this case, 荒 describes the weather.
From the following compounds and their breakdowns, you might conclude that 荒 (KŌ, ara(i), ara-, a(reru), a(rasu), -a(rashi): rough, crude, natural, wild) generally refers to a force that whips natural elements into a state of frenzy:
荒天 (kōten: stormy weather) wild + skies
荒波 (aranami: wild waves or stormy seas) rough + waves
You may know 波 from 津波 (tsunami: harbor + wave).
荒れ狂う風 (arekuruu kaze: raging wind)
being wild + crazy + wind
That’s sometimes true, but not always. In the haiku that Alberto Sanz has chosen for the June page of his haiku calendar, 荒 describes a woven mat.
Alberto has assembled a powerful, shocking, and moving explanation of a haiku that might seem placid and lacking in depth; I urge you to read his PDF.
Components and Contradictions
If you examine 荒, you find three components: the “grass” radical 艹, “death” (亡), and “river” (川). It’s hard to imagine how these things go together. Bluegrass music about death, played by a river? A dead body discovered in the grass by a river?
Henshall says 亡 and 川 combine here to mean “(vast) watery waste.” The 亡 acts phonetically to express “vast.” This component also lends connotations of “death,” and by association “destruction.” Putting all the components together yields “grassy waste,” which is to say, “a place once inhabited but now ruined and overgrown with grass.” Thus, 荒 means “uncared for, rough, wild.”
Here’s the strange thing, though. Something wild is overly full of life, as with a wind-whipped sea. But a ruined, uncared-for place is a wasteland, devoid of life:
荒土 (kōdo: wasteland; barren or infertile soil) ruined + soil
The kanji 荒 encompasses both meanings. Long ago, we started seeing kanji that contain opposite meanings, and now it looks as though 荒 is another member of the group.
If you want to refer to T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” (and I know you do!), don’t use 荒土 but rather this:
荒れ地 (arechi: wasteland) being wild + land
This compound plays a starring role in two sentences with opposite story lines. In one, a wasteland undergoes a transformation, turning into a garden. It’s your classic tale: an ugly duckling goes all beautiful goose on us. In the other story, a garden deteriorates into a wasteland. Take your pick:
Kare wa arechi o utsukushii niwa ni kaeta.
He transformed a piece of wasteland into a beautiful garden.
Sono teien wa arechi ni kawaritsutsu aru.
The garden is turning into a wilderness.
Rack and Ruin
荒れ放題 (arehōdai: gone to ruin)
ruined + as much as one would like (last 2 chars.)
荒れ果てる (arehateru: to fall into ruin)
ruined + suffix indicating completeness
A long time ago, we saw 果 as a way to bring about completeness, particularly in its suffix form. Now we’ll take that further; as a suffix, it also helps to bring about ruin. Some sample sentences:
Sono tanbo wa arehateta mama da.
The rice field lies wasted.
田んぼ (tanbo: rice field)
Sono kojō wa arehateta mama ni natte ita.
The old castle lay in ruins.
古城 (kojō: old castle) old + castle
Here’s a more concise version of what the last sentence said:
荒城 (kōjō: ruined castle) ruined + castle
Kojō wa kōjō desu.
The old castle is ruined.
If you said that to a native speaker with your best pronunciation, I wonder how long it would take that person to grasp your meaning, particularly given the plethora of kōjō homonyms. Try it and let me know!
Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz!