Sunday, December 24, 2017

Yojijukugo 四字熟語

In Japanese, a yojijukugo 四字熟語 is literally a "four-character idiom," that is, an idiom written with exactly four kanji. This word is sometimes misread as shijijukugo, because the Japanese number "four" can be read as shi or yon.

Example of yojijukugo 四字熟語, isseki nichou 一石二鳥, "killing two birds with one stone" in Japanese.

Concept

How exactly yojijukugo came to be, I wouldn't know. If I had to wager, it comes from the fact a lot of words are written with two kanji. So if you put two words in parallel, you get four kanji.

Maybe because of that, the yojijukugo are aesthetically pleasant, both visually and phonetically, so they tend to appear in various different ways in various different places.

Examples

For example, isseki-nichou 一石二鳥, "one stone + two birds." It means, as you'd guess, the same thing as the English idiom "to kill two birds with one," or the Portuguese idiom "matar dois coelhos com um tiro só," that is, it means to do two things in a single action, thus saving effort.

(I guess this idiom is such universal knowledge every language has a version of it)

Another example: futou-fukutsu 不撓不屈, "unbending + unyielding," from tawamu 撓むた, "to bend," kussuru 屈する, "to yield," and the negating prefix fu 不. This idiom refers to someone who never yields to anything.

Not all yojijukugo are so simple. Since they are idioms, it can be difficult to understand the meaning of the words from the meaning of the kanji in the word. For example, juunin-juuiro 十人十色 means "ten people, ten colors." But it's not talking about literal colors. It's not even talking about actual ten people. It's just saying that "everyone has a different opinion (color)."

Then we have ii-dakudaku 唯唯諾諾, also written with kurikaeshi, ii-dakudaku 唯々諾々. Going by the meaning of the kanji, this one means something like "solely + agreement." It refers to someone who's completely willing to say "yes, yes," hai hai はいはい, to anything and everything. Absolute obedience. A total pushover. In other words: pretty much every harem MC ever.

Of course just because there are a lot of yojijukugo with two two-kanji words that doesn't mean all of them follow this pattern.

Four Kanji Four Things

For example, shun-ka-shuu-tou 春夏秋冬 has four separate morphemes: spring, summer, autumn, winter. It means, of course, the "four seasons," shiki 四季.

Likewise, tou-sai-nan-boku 東西南北 refers to the four cardinal directions: east, west, south, north. And jou-ge-sa-yuu上下左右 refers to the four directions: up, down, left, right.

These words, despite looking very simple, aren't as straightforward as one would think.

For example, the word for the four seasons, shunkashuutou, sounds like it's just a noun, but it can be used as an adverb. That is, shukashuutou can mean you'll do something "each and every season."

the word for the four cardinal directions, tousainanboku, sounds like a totally useless word nobody would ever get to use in their lives, but it's actually used to refer to the directions in a map, for example, or the precise directions to get to somewhere. Or even saying you don't know your way around the city.

Not Yojijukugo

The term yojijukugo is supposed to refer strictly to "idioms," jukugo 熟語, however it's not always used as intended.

Sometimes it ends up referring to "four-character set-phrases," yojiseigo 四字成語, slogans written with four kanji, and, in the worst case, literally any word written with four kanji.

I think this should be obvious, but: yojijukugo only applies to idioms written with four kanji. Not to any word written with four kanji.

Notably, yojijukugo 四字熟語 is written with four kanji, but it's not a yojijukugo since it's not an idiom. And hitori-hitori 一人一人, "one by one (for people)" isn't one either. It's just a word that happens to have four kanji.

So yojijukugo doesn't mean a "four-character compound," it means "four-character idiom." I mean, what would even be the point of making all this fuss about a word simply having four characters? Why is nijijukugo, sanjijukugo, gojijukugo, etc. not as common as yoji? Specially nijijukugo. Most words are two character compounds!

That's because jukugo means "idiom" here. There are two-character idioms, three-character idioms, etc. but four-character idioms are the most common.

Also unrelated but similar, a jukujikun 熟字訓, is a kun'yomi reading for a whole kanji compound. That one has nothing to do with idioms, just with compounds.

List of Yojijukugo

If you want more examples, check out a dictionary. There are various dictionaries that list these words, but beware that what they consider a yojikujukugo can vary.

Japanese dictionary idiom list (best choice):

In English

Kanji Haitani collection from various sources:

On Jisho, searching the tag #yoji returns words tagged as yojijukugo.

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