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A Killer Kanji: Part 4

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It’s easy to think that (ZAN, noko(ru), noko(su): to remain) has a soft nuance. After all, this character shows up in words such as 残念 (zannen: regret, to remain + thoughts). But when you learn the etymology of , you’ll see that we have a killer kanji on our hands!

In , says Henshall, the means “death” or “bare bones.” The right-hand side is a halberd (), an ax-like weapon, that has been doubled for emphasis. In , the also means “to cut and kill.” Altogether we have “to kill someone cruelly by cutting them to the bone.” In China, still primarily means “cruel, harm.” Some people think that “to remain” is a borrowed meaning, deriving from the idea of hacking a person till only the bare bones remain.

Several expressions reflect the cruel underpinnings of this kanji:

無残 (muzan: cruelty, atrocity, cold-bloodedness, tragedy, misery)
     no + cruel

This compound should mean “no cruelty,” right? Quite the opposite. Maybe we should interpret it as no + remaining, as in, “I’ve killed everyone. No one remains.” But Halpern says here means “ruthless, cruel, brutal.” So … I’m lost.

Sample Sentence with 無残

残酷 (zankoku: cruelty, harshness)     cruel + severe

Sample Sentences with 残酷

残忍 (zannin: brutality)     cruel + to endure

This sounds much like 残念 (zannen: regret), and the “heart” radical shows up in both of the second-position kanji, so those characters look somewhat similar. But what a world of difference!

Speaking of differences, I wondered whether 残忍 and 残酷 were synonyms, because Breen defines both primarily as “cruelty.” A native speaker told me that 残忍 is closer to “brutality. He added, “Demanding a high tax on a poverty-stricken person is 残酷 but definitely not 残忍. Meanwhile, chopping a human body into pieces is more pertinently described as 残忍 than as 残酷.”

As if you hadn’t had enough cruelty and brutality, here’s one more term:

残虐 (zangyaku: cruelty, brutality)     cruel + cruel

Another bit of graphic etymology: originally showed a tiger () that was clawing (E) a person. (“Person” has since disappeared from the current shape.) This character came to represent “cruelty,” with “oppression” being an associated meaning.

Sample Sentence with 残虐

This last word has two spinoff phrases:

残虐無道 (zangyaku mudō: inhumanity, atrocity)
     cruel + cruel + not + right way of life
残虐非道 (zangyaku hidō: inhumanity, atrocity)
     cruel + cruel + not + right way of life

These terms differ only by a single kanji versus —both of which mean “non-” or “not.” I guess that’s why each phrase has the same definition.

One might interpret 無道 (mudō) as “no way,” as in “No way, Jose. No cruelty! No brutality!” Instead, we should understand it as “not the correct way for humans to act.” Turns out, 無道 means “wicked, unreasonable.”

As for 非道 (hidō), that means “unjust, inhuman.” Initially, I thought 非道 might be related to hidoi (cruel, atrocious, unjust, severe), but that’s written as 酷い.

We saw earlier in 残酷 (zankoku: cruelty, harshness). What’s the “saké” radical doing inside ? As you’ll find out at the link, saké involves its own brand of brutality.


Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz!

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