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Friday, June 19, 2015

Groins, Crotches and Thighs - Getting Round Them in Japanese


One of the kanji "lessons" that sticks most clearly in my mind is an impromptu one given me by a deputy principal of one of the junior high schools I worked at back in the late 1980s when I first came to Japan.

The concept of crotch, groin and thigh in the Japanese language.
Is it a crotch, a groin, or halfway between two thighs?

Maybe it was at an enkai (drinking party), because I remember some raucousness as he taught me the Japanese word for "thighs" — mata, and drew in the air the very intuitive kanji for it, 叉, that indeed does closely take after a pair of crossed legs with a tiny "slot" in between that he delighted in adding as a finishing touch.

In Japanese, however, the concept of the thigh/groin area is a little blurred. mata can actually be written using any of three commonly used kanji: 叉, 股 or 俣, and relates to all things femoral.

The usual word for thigh is actually momo, and is written using 股 or 腿. Momoniku ("thigh meat") for example, is the word for a round of beef, a ham, or a leg of poultry. Yet, the messiness continues with the word sumata (素股) (and, for some reason, not pronounced "sumomo") meaning "inner thigh" or, in a derivative meaning, that halfway house to sodomy, intercrural sex. And then there is the word for steps or strides: 小俣 (komata) meaning short, or mincing, steps (or, just to keep you confused, in its no.2 meaning: crotch, groin or thigh), and 大股 (ohmata) meaning big steps, a swinging stride (also: the act of straddling something, or, in sumo, a thigh-scooping body drop.)

In everyday parlance, mata is actually more about the crotch, and is written using the flexible 股, or the 叉 I was first introduced to, or 俣. It can also be used to describe a fork in a tree, road, river, etc. or the tines or a fork. A person’s crotch can also be described as a mataguchi 股口, literally “crotch-mouth.”

So, to sum up so far: mata = crotch, fork, and momo = thigh.

Then there is the verb that derives from it, matagu 跨ぐ, which, as a transitive verb (the kind of verb A does to B) means to step over, step across, stride across, or cross, and as an intransitive verb means to span, bridge, saddle or straddle.

matagu is often used as part of the idiom shikii o matagu 敷居を跨ぐ, literally “to cross the threshhold” or with the meaning of “to set foot in.”

Other common uses are, for example, “cross-border” as in kyokai o matagu mondai 境界を跨ぐ問題: a cross-border issue, or, literally, an “issue that straddles/crosses borders.”

Finally, don’t be confused between the above meanings of the word mata and the mata that all learners of Japanese will be familiar with meaning “also, again, in addition to, moreover.” The kanji for the “again” meaning is 又, which originally depicted the right hand, and probably derives its current meaning from the concept of “on the other hand.” This week’s mata, 叉, actually also derives from hand, but in the sense of interlaced fingers—thus “fork.”

Sore ja, mata ne!

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