Glossed in Translation

This week’s video is about the development of a country name that also became a common noun, “Japan”:

This video originates in the fact that the English name Japan appears to be an unrelated exonym to the native name Nippon, when actually they come from the same Chinese origin. By the way, the name is sometimes more fully given as Nippon-koku meaning “the State of Japan”, and this might be reflected in some of the early versions of the name in Europe such as Marco Polo’s Chipangu. There are conflicting stories as to who first started to use the phrase meaning “sun’s origin” to refer to the region. According the the American Heritage Dictionary, it was Japanese scholars who had studied Chinese who began to use the phrase around 670 CE (during the Tang Dynasty). Alternatively, Henry Dyer reports (see sources on the show notes page) that in 607 (during the Chinese Sui dynasty) the Emperor of Japan is supposed to have sent a letter to the Court of China with the greeting “A letter from the sovereign of the Sun-rise country to the sovereign of the Sun-set country”. However, another story claims that it was the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian of the later Tang dynasty who ordered the change of name. Of course the sun is an important cultural symbol in Japan, and one of the most important deities in Shinto religion and Japanese mythology is the sun goddess Amaterasu. The Emperors of Japan were held to be descended from her.

The European aruquebus first arrived in Japan in the hands of the Portuguese aboard a Chinese ship which came ashore on the island of Tanegashima in 1543. After a demonstration of duck shooting, the Lord of the island purchased the guns at great expense, and after a few initial technical hiccups, they started manufacturing and even improving on them. The European guns arrived in Japan during a time of civil wars called the Sengoku period from around 1467 to 1603, which ended with the Tokugawa shogunate and the ensuing Edo period, a time not only of isolationism but relative peace, and much has been made of the fact that the Japanese henceforth gave up firearms and returned to the sword, so that when in 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry led the US fleet to forcibly reopen Japan to relations and trade, they seemed to have little knowledge of firearms. You can read about this story in detail in Noel Perin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, or have a look at Jabzy’s excellent on-the-scene videos about Europeans in Japan and Guns in Japan. Of the Japanese improvements to the Portuguese arquebus, Perrin writes: “They developed a serial firing technique to speed up the flow of the bullets. They increased the caliber of the guns to increase each bullet’s effectiveness, and they ordered waterproof lacquered cases to carry the matchlocks and gunpowder in … Japanese gunmakers were busy refining the comparatively crude Portuguese firing mechanism — developing, for example, a helical main spring and an adjustable trigger-pull. They also devised a gun accessory — unknown, so far as I am aware, in Europe — which enabled a matchlock to be fired in the rain.”

Now there were a number of etymologies I didn’t have time to include in the video, but the words for the various goods that led the Europeans to Asia are quite interesting and instructive. First the word "lacquer", one of the main focusses of the video, which comes not from Japanese or Chinese but ultimately from the Indian language Sanskrit word lākṣā referring to a red dye (not black, you note), which becomes Hindi lākh, then Persian lāk, which becomes lacre in Portuguese, Spanish, and French to refer to a kind of sealing wax, before moving into English as "lacquer". The source and meaning of the word is somewhat debated. It might be a variant of Sanskrit rahk and thus come from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “colour, dye”. Or it might come from Sanskrit laksha meaning “salmon” (and thus be related to English "lox") in reference to its colour. But I think my favourite explanation is that the Sanskrit word means literally “one hundred thousand” in reference to the large numbers of insects that are needed to produce the lac. Called lac insects, they infest a tree in large numbers and secrete a resinous pigment which is then harvested and processed to produce shellac — yes that’s where that word comes from, because the lac flakes are kind of shell-like in appearance.

Shellac also used to be used to make gramophone records and some kinds of hard candies (so beware, vegans, as they contain animal products). Shellac is a calque or loan translation of the French laque en écailles. And the slang term "to shellac" as in “to beat soundly” probably comes from the idea of “to finish (off)”. And on the subject of slang terms, "to be japanned" also has a slang sense, to be ordained into the church, in reference to the black coat of the clergy, reminiscent of the black finish on that japanned furniture.

Silk was another draw to Asia, along what is referred to as the silk road, an over-land trade route. Early on it carried silks from China to ancient Greece, and that’s a clue to the etymology of the word “silk”. Old English seolc comes from Latin sericus, from Greek σηρικός ‎(sērikós). Serikos is the adjective form of Seres, the Greek name for the people from whom the goods came from, presumably a group in China, and it has been suggested that the word might come from the Chinese word si meaning “silk”, in Manchurian sirghe and Mongolian sirkek, so from the trade good, to the name of a people, and back to the name of the trade good again, in an interesting parallel to the progress of Japan to japanning.

“Porcelain” has perhaps the most surprising etymology. It comes from Latin porcella “young sow”, the feminine diminutive form of porcus meaning “pig”, thus related to our modern English word "pork". The Italian porcellana was also used to refer to a kind of cowrie shell, probably because of its resemblance to a female pig’s genitalia. Yes, really. And the shiny finish of porcelain was reminiscent of the shiny shells, hence the name was transferred over. So think about that the next time you eat pork off of some fine porcelain!

And finally “spice”, which comes from Latin species meaning “kind, sort” and originally “appearance” as it comes from a Latin root specio “to see” from a Proto-Indo-European root *spek- “to observe” which gives us a large number of modern English derivatives, like "species", "spy", and "special". In the plural, Latin species went from meaning “kind, sort” to “goods, wares”, probably from the sense of a particular kind of merchandise, and eventually narrowed in meaning further still to the word “spice” as we know it today, perhaps an indication that it was the most particularly important trade good. Indeed the extreme value of spices from Asia would certainly support this. And contrary to popular myth, during the middle ages they never used spices to hide the taste of rotten meat. Spices were far too expensive to waste in that way and it probably wouldn’t work anyway. To coin a phrase, even a hundred thousand special trade goods can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s… well.