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Preparing to Hibernate

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Welcome to winter, a time of holiday hokeyness, excess consumption, darkness, coldness, and most of all sleep. A bear would put sleep first on that list. But you needn’t be a bear to think about hibernation. As the year draws to a close, you might take note of the compound 越年 (etsunen: to go beyond + year), which means both “ringing out the old year” and “hibernating”!

Actually, 冬眠 (tōmin: winter + sleep) is a much more common way to say “hibernation.” It’s a great compound but could introduce some confusion; if you already knew , seeing would make you realize that there are two characters for “sleep”:

(SHIN, ne(ru): to go to sleep)
(MIN, nemu(ru): to sleep)

Their kun-yomi sound similar, and their on-yomi aren’t too far apart, either. But whereas can mean “to lie down,” cannot. Moreover, can refer to the process of falling asleep, as these words imply:

寝入る (ne-iru: to fall asleep)     sleep + to enter
寝際 (negiwa: on the verge of sleep; just after falling asleep)
     sleep + edge

This breakdown conjures up the wonderful image of sleep as a space or place with an edge.

寝掛け (negake: half-asleep)     sleep + to suspend, to hang

Also a neat idea—being suspended in the space between sleep and wakefulness.

Another Cool Word for Half-Asleep …

I’ve decided that appears in far more compounds than the more straightforward . But don’t count out, because it also shows up in some interesting (if not terribly useful) words:

一眠 (ichimin: the first sleep (of silkworms))     one + sleep
永眠 (eimin: eternal sleep; death)     ice + sleep

Isn’t that great?! Death is an icy sleep!

There’s overlap between and in the following expressions, which are nearly identical in meaning:

金を寝かす (kane o nekasu: to let money lie idle)
     money + to put to sleep

With the yomi of ne(kasu), means “to put to sleep.”

眠っている金 (nemutte iru kane: money lying idle)
     to sleep + money


The Idle Riches

Let’s leave aside the issue of how these two kanji differ, because I’m far more intrigued by the notion that money can sleep. The author Nejime Shōichi wrote a wonderful essay called 昼寝をしている私の直木賞百万円, Hirune o Shite Iru Watashi no Naoki-shō Hyakuman-En, “My ¥1 Million Naoki Prize (Money) Takes a Nap.”

A Breakdown of the Kanji

Money may “talk,” but it’s far more interesting to imagine bills and coins as sleeping. In English, we have the concept of the “idle rich”; in Japanese, the actual money is idle!

Even outside of financial contexts, often has the sense of idleness. That nuance comes through clearly in this word:

寝食い (negui: living in idleness)     to sleep + to eat

A Less Common Yomi for

If an object lies idle or doesn’t perform up to capacity, it’s also “sleeping”:

寝刃 (netaba: (instrument with a) dull blade)     to sleep + blade


Keeping One’s Head While Asleep

It may seem as if nothing much happens while we sleep, but that’s not necessarily true—particularly if others are watching us! Sleep makes us terribly vulnerable, and the following compound gives an eerie sense of that:

寝首 (nekubi: head of a sleeping person)     to sleep + head

Though generally means “neck,” it can also mean “head.”

What might we make of the head of a sleeping person? Well, we might notice the tousled hair and a certain facial expression, in which case we’ll want to use the following descriptive compounds:

寝癖 (neguse: bed hair; habit of moving around in one’s sleep)
     to sleep + mannerism
寝顔 (negao: sleeping face)     to sleep + face

But people might use 寝首 to describe something far more sinister:

寝首を掻く (nekubi o kaku: to cut off the head of a sleeping person; to catch someone off guard by setting traps)
     to sleep + head + to behead

For More on Decapitation …

Beheading a slumbering person may be a freak incident, but betrayal happens to be intimately connected with , as in this word:

寝返り(negaeri: turning over while sleeping in bed; betrayal)
     to sleep + to return

If you’re trying to imagine how this word could have both senses, see Breen’s sample sentences.

Sample Sentences with 寝返り


Other Things to Do When Asleep

Besides being beheaded, there are lots of things to do while asleep. Here’s one suggestion:

不貞寝 (futene: staying in bed out of spite)
     not + chaste + to sleep

Unchaste sleep might suggest something sexual. But this word is about anger! Whom are you spiting if you stay in bed? I’m not sure, but it’s fun to consider the possibilities!

Here’s another great one. Whereas English has people sleeping like logs, Japanese refers to sleeping so soundly that it’s as if one is mired in mud:

泥のように寝る (doro no yōni neru: to sleep like a log)
     mud + to sleep

In nightmares, it can feel as though one is running through mud, becoming increasingly frustrated. But this compound suggests a much more peaceful idea—perhaps of pigs happily asleep in a mudbath. Hmm … if you moved those sleeping pigs to a bed, wouldn’t that make them pigs in blankets?

And what if you’re unable to sleep soundly? That is, what if your conscience jolts you awake at 4 a.m.? Then you can use the following expression:

寝覚めが悪い (nezame ga warui: to have an uneasy conscience)
     to sleep + to awaken + bad

Together, the first two kanji, 寝覚, mean “to awaken.” The breakdown of the whole expression seems to follow the thought process that one might have at 4 a.m.: I sleep. Then I awaken. That’s BAD! Or … maybe I’m bad! What did I do that was so bad? Well, I’ve been living in idleness, even staying in bed out of spite. I haven’t bothered to sharpen my blade. It’s dull and idle. Nevertheless, I used it to cut off the head of a sleeping person. My wife, in fact. That’s why I’m now feeling this:

寝淋しい (nesabishii: missing a sleeping companion)
     sleep + lonely

I love the level of specificity here! As it happens, also figures into other highly specific compounds.

Highly Specific Compounds with

If you’re still awake (after all this talk of sleeping), enjoy the Verbal Logic Quiz. After that, enjoy the holidays and (if possible) the darkest time of year! Happy Hibernating! I myself am down for a long nap. See you in three weeks!

Verbal Logic Quiz …