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Slipping Downhill and Scaling Summits: Part 2

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It’s May 1. So what does that mean for us? Well, it’s a holiday in many parts of the world, but not for me, so that definitely wasn’t on my mind. Wrong answer!

May 1 is also my husband’s birthday. Happy birthday! This year, after my birthday rolls around, we’ll both have prime numbers as our ages. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I also think it’s highly insignificant in the big scheme of things (e.g., the study of Japanese), so forget that answer, too.

The “proper” answer is that it’s time for the May page of Alberto Sanz’s beautiful haiku calendar:




The haiku again:

Aekanaru bara erioreba haru no rai
Choosing the most fragile rose … spring thunder

Wow, what a surprise ending! The rose is already delicate. Picking the flower makes it even more vulnerable. And then to top it off, there’s a thunderclap! Will the rose survive? I’m on the edge of my seat!

And what difficult Japanese! Good thing Alberto is here again to offer insights about the haiku. I’ll meet you on a side page, where we can talk further about some of these words.

The Words in the Haiku …


Positive and Negative Thinking

Now, without any transition, let’s go to extremes! That is, I’d like to return to a few words that I introduced last week, all of which feature the following kanji:

(KYOKU, GOKU, kiwa(meru), kiwa(maru): extreme, pole)

First up:

積極的 (sekkyokuteki: assertive, positive, active, willing)
     to accumulate + to go to extremes + adjectival suffix

Once, after I taught my Japanese language partner an English expression, he used 積極的 in the following sentence:

Sekkyokuteki ni wa tsukaenai kamo shirenai.
Maybe I can’t use it actively.

使 (tsuka(u): to use)
かもしれない (kamo shirenai: maybe)

He had emerged from our discussion with only a fuzzy understanding, and although he thought he might be able to understand the expression if he heard it, he couldn’t use it in a sentence just yet.

Meanwhile, my own confidence was taking a dive. I didn’t understand his sentence very well, so he rephrased it:


Jibun wa sono tango ni jishin ga nai node, sekkyokuteki ni wa tsukaenai.
I’m not confident about that word, so I can’t use it willingly.

自分 (jibun: oneself)     self + part
単語 (tango: vocabulary, word)     unit + word
自信 (jishin: confidence)     oneself + to believe
使 (tsuka(u): to use)

Ah, that was much better. I finally grasped his meaning, and I was getting a handle on 積極的, or so I thought. But things aren’t as simple as they appear. Look what happens when you preface with the prefix for “super-” or “ultra-”:

超積極的 (chōsekkyokuteki: hyperactive)
     super + to accumulate + to go to extremes + adj. suffix

Free will and positive thinking have turned into hyperactivity! Watch out with all that positive thinking, and be sure to put those affirmations away, or someone will chase you down with Ritalin!

Changing the first kanji in 積極的 produces its antonym:

極的 (shōkyokuteki: negative, half-hearted, passive,
unmotivated)     negative + to go to extremes + adjectival suffix

As it turns out, the same partner used this word on a different occasion. He’s a star skiier, an athlete who spends a whole year training and sacrificing for just a few races. Anything less than a first-place finish, and he’s bound to feel frustrated. Here’s his comment about just how bummed out he was after a recent race:

Jun’i yori nani yori, suberi ga shōkyokuteki-sugimashita.
It’s not a matter of ranking or anything but my skiing was too passive.

順位 (jun’i: rank (in a race))     order + rank
(nani: what)
すべり (suberi: sliding, slipping)

This word suggests “skiing” in the sentence.

This sentence threw me for a loop; I thought maybe __yori ___yori formed a fascinating grammatical construct, so I searched my books and racked my brains, but nothing came. That’s because it’s not a fixed expression at all. The word すべり also gave me pause; I would never have imagined that someone would refer to skillful skiing as “slipping and sliding.” That’s for klutzes, isn’t it? Finally, I knew nothing about 消極的, so I consulted another native speaker. He said this:

消極的 is a very popular word. 消極的 can mean ‘negative’ in cases like, ‘He is negative about helping the auto manufacturers.’ In the present case, he means that he should have been more aggressive (offensive) in the skiing race. In other words, he is saying that his skiing was too defensive.”

Well, if I thought of skiing as slipping and sliding, I believe I would approach it quite cautiously, too!


Reaching the Summit

Going to extremes can have a negative connotation, as in these terms:

貧困を極める (hinkon o kiwameru: to be reduced to extreme
     poverty)     poor + to suffer + to go to extremes

感極まる (kankiwamaru: to be overcome with emotion)
     to feel + to go to extremes

Here, is part of the intransitive form kiwamaru, which Halpern defines as “to reach an extreme point, be extremely dangerous.” So 感極まる indicates some pretty powerful emotions!

But going to extremes can also help you scale mountains, as in this expression:

山頂を極める (sanchō o kiwameru: to reach the summit)
     mountain + summit + to go to extremes

What a great way to carry things to extremes! It requires lots of 積極的な thinking—much as scaling the mountain of Jōyō kanji does! Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz!

Verbal Logic Quiz …

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