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On the Borderline: Part 1

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In the last blog, we encountered the following words:

順境 (junkyō: favorable circumstances, prosperity)
     favorable + situation

環境 (kankyō: environment, situation)
     to surround + situation

Clearly, (KYŌ, KEI, sakai: boundary, situation) is clamoring for a closer look. For starters, it might help to crank up the size:

Taken alone, strikes me as a cute, perky kanji—perhaps a distant cousin of (I: will, heart, mind). Given that breaks down into recognizable, simple components (, , , and ), it’s not at all unfriendly.

On the Etymology of

But when it appears in 環境, I feel nearly blinded by the profusion of small lines going every which way. I can never seem to recognize this daunting compound. However, it is an important word, one that I hear from time to time.

Sample Sentences with 環境


The Appeal of Boundaries

So it’s time to tame this beast! Once we develop a solid level of familiarity with these two characters and even an affectionate relationship with them, everything will change. We’ll take on first, examining in later blogs.

It’s actually quite easy to love . Its original meaning is “boundary,” and I find the idea of boundaries intriguing. Sometimes the thinnest of boundaries separates two massive and powerful entities. Think of human skin: all that it keeps in, and all that it keeps out. Think of a building and how its exterior wall (also called skin) shields us from whipping winds and lashing rainstorms. Think of the border between China and Russia. (They do share a border, right? Please tell me I didn’t just pull a McCain.)


Photo Credit: © Claudia Hering

Like a door, a boundary sends mixed messages: both “Keep Out!” and “Come on in!” In fact, the more a boundary seems to be telling me “Keep Out!”, the more I feel I must cross that line. That is, I’m tempted to commit this:

越境 (ekkyō: violation of a border)     to go beyond + border

Previous Appearances of

Boundary Violations …


The Fence: Sarimbun, Singapore
Photo Credit: Daniel Cheong

When two hostile regions meet at a single line, what tension that line contains! Conversely, when two friendly entities lie side by side, the line between them constitutes a kind of sweet union. For some reason, my mind went to the old ads for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Those ads treated the blending of chocolate and peanut butter first as a lamentable mix-up (literally!) and then as a serendipitous, delicious invention—a sweet union indeed!


Boundary in the Snow: St-Colomban, Québec, Canada
Photo Credit: Gaëtan Bourque


A Character That Does What It Says

Here’s something to blow your mind. I indicated that has two very different meanings, “boundary” and “situation.” In this way, the “boundary” character itself lies at the boundary between two regions! (Actually, Breen says means “region,” as well!)

Certain words clearly contain the meaning of “boundary”:

国境 (kokkyō or kunizakai: national boundary/border)
     country + boundary

And in some words, obviously means “situation”:

悲境 (hikyō: sad plight, distress)     sad + situation

But in the next word, can mean either “boundary” or “situation”:

境目 (sakaime: border, boundary line, crisis)

To clarify things, I’ll supply two versions with different definitions and breakdowns:

境目 (sakaime: border, boundary line)     boundary + dividing line
境目 (sakaime: crisis)     situation + dividing line

Another surprise: has scads of meanings, and Halpern says it can mean “dividing line, borderline,” as it seems to here.


Chinatown Boundary: Los Angeles
The characters in the pavement are 一八八七年 and 唐人街,
breaking down as 1887 + year and Chinese + people + town.
Photo Credit: Faria

On of 唐人街

At first, it seems counterintuitive that one word could mean both “boundary line” and “crisis.” But it actually makes sense. Consider this:

• Crises often occur at national borders.
• “Borderline personality disorder” moves the concept of “borderline” out of the physical world and into the emotional realm, which is where many crises occur.
• As the saying goes, based on the popular interpretation (or possible misinterpretation) of 危機 (kiki: crisis, danger + opportunity), a crisis occurs at the boundary of danger and opportunity.

A Possible Misconception …

• Having a crisis often involves being “on edge,” “edgy,” or even “on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” One senses that there’s a thin line between sanity and insanity, between the conscious and unconscious minds.
• Remember that wretched song by Madonna about borderlines? How did it go? Ah, here it is: “Borderline / Feels like I’m going to lose my mind / You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.” Now that I’ve Googled those lyrics and heard them again in my mind, all the trauma of living through the ’80s has come flooding back. (Are you suffering, too, from the Madonna flashback?) It’s definitely an annoying song, but in just a few words, she captured the psychological aspects of a borderline, and for that I suppose I should be grateful. Hmm … No.


Field Boundary: Cornwall, England
Photo Credit: Roger Butterfield

Well, it seems that I’ve yammered on too long without exploring in much depth. In fact, I took so long that you might say to me, “You just keep on pushing my patience over the borderline.” But don’t. Really. Please don’t.

We’ll return to and in weeks to come. And when that happens, I’ll make sure to create a Madonna-free 環境.

Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz!

Verbal Logic Quiz …