153 - Four Character Compounds

You guys, kanji are awesome. If you don’t know this about me yet, I would like to share with you all how much I love kanji. Each of them tells a story, or paints a little picture, and I am a visual learner, so this is probably why I love kanji so much.

When you run into an unknown word in English--for example, “truculence”--you have very little clue as to what the word means. (If you know this word you get a gold star!)

It means "aggressiveness" or "ferocity," by the way. But you didn’t know that because you literally had no clue of the meaning. We can sometimes use prefixes and suffixes in English to give us clues, but they aren’t always clear and most of the time only help a bit.

But kanji are different, each of them has a meaning, and even the pieces (radicals) have meanings. In Japanese, if you run into an unknown word, there are a bunch of clues in each of the characters.

Let’s take, for example 鉄骨(てっこつ), I ran into this word while I was reading the other day and even though it looks hard, it didn’t stop me at all.

The first character is 鉄(てつ)which means “iron” and the second is 骨(ほね、こつ)which means “bone.”

Since the passage was talking about a building that had been demolished, it was super easy to guess the meaning. “Steel beams,” or the iron bones of the building. Even if you don’t recognize 鉄 or 骨, there are still clues within each of these kanji. If you have studied kanji radicals, you would know that 金 means “metal” and 月 appears in kanji related to body parts. (If you haven’t yet, study radicals, just 30 of them appear in 75% of the 2000 kanji you need to know to read a newspaper!)

Anyway, the point is, kanji are freaking cool.

One of the most interesting kinds of kanji compounds to decipher is called 四字熟語(よじじゅくご)or “four character compounds.” These compounds are found a bunch in Japanese and can be either literal or idiomatic phrases.

The literal ones are pretty straight forward; they are usually simply two words put together to make one. For example:

A highway or expressway
Literally: “high + speed + road”

Japan/U.S. relations
Literally: “Japan + U.S. + relationship”
Note: In Japanese, there is usually one kanji to represent a country; this is used a lot in newspapers for short headlines. 日 is Japan, 米 is America, 仏 is France, 中 is China, 露 is Russia, etc. If you brush up on a few more of these, you will have a much easier time reading the politics section of a Japanese newspaper (which you know you want to do!).

All people
Literally: “old + young + man + woman”

A University education
Literally: “University + education”

Being so absorbed in something you forget yourself.
Literally:”not + self + concentration”

But the real fun is the 四字熟語(じじゅくご) that are also idioms. Each one tells a little story. In English, we also have certain idioms without literal meanings like “doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

That expression doesn’t have anything to do with falling or trees, as you already know. It means that families are alike, especially parents and their children. These next idioms are the same; they tell you a little story that has nothing to do with the actual meaning.

With as much effort as possible
Literally: “whole life + eagerness” Or, “as much effort as a whole lifetime.”

Kill two birds with one stone
Literally: “one + stone + two + bird”

To each his own
Literally: “ten + people + ten + colors” Or, “each of ten people have ten different colors.”

One in a lifetime chance.
Literally: “lifetime + one + meet” Or, “to meet one in your life.”

Steady progress
Literally: “day + progress + month + walk”

Survival of the fittest/It’s a dog eat dog world
Literally: “weak + meat + strong + eat” Or, “the strong eat the weak.”

In all probability
Literally: “ten + inside + eight + nine” Or, “eight or nine times out of ten.”

All sides, all directions
Literally: “four + way + eight + way”

Time is money/Time is precious
Literally: “one moment + thousand + gold” Or, “each moment is worth one thousand gold.”

You reap what you sow/Karma is a bitch
Literally: “self + work + self + profit”

If you like the world of 四字熟語, there are many more out there. I just picked out common ones that you might run into for this lesson. In fact there are a couple of lists online that show the 四字熟語 elementary school students in Japan are expected to learn. Take a look at these sites, which have Japanese definitions and see if you can figure out the meanings. And have a bit of fun adding these colorful phrases to your Japanese repertoire!



This lesson was written by Cassy L., a guest contributor:

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