Whispering names at dusk

Suppose you want to remember something. How do you do it?

Let us say you want to learn the Chinese-Character (kanji 漢字) for “name” (na or mei 名). What advice do you get from textbooks on “learning Japanese”? The answer (it turns out) is:

You make up a story which “provide a peg on which to hang the recall of the sign in question and its analogues. If all else fails a mnemonic is sometimes offered, even if it is etymologically without substance” [1].

In other words, just spin a yarn centered on that “something” and it doesn’t have to be accurate as long as it’s memorable.

Let’s see an example:

”Comprising the characters for evening ( 夕 ) and mouth ( 口 ); calling out one’s name at night?” [2]

Or if you prefer French:

“A la nuit tombée, dans l’obscurité, le seul moyen de se faire reconnaitre c’est de dire son nom; par extension la réputation qui s’y attache” [3]

Maybe you prefer pictures:

”His name is on everyone’s lips”[4]

The name on everyone's lips

The name on everyone’s lips


And my personal favourite:

”Perhaps you have heard of the custom, still preserved in certain African tribes, of a father creeping into the tent or hut of his newborn child on the night of the child’s birth, to whisper into its ear the name he has chosen for it, before making his choice public. It is an impressive naming custom and fits in tidily with the way this character is constructed: evening mouth. At evening time, a mouth pronounces the name that will accompany one throughout life.”[5]

[1] Martin Lam and Shimizu Kaoru, Kanji from the Start, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1995, p. 14

[2] Kanji from the Start, p. 133

[3] Jean-Claude Martin, Memento des Kanji utilisés dans la langue Japonaise, Paris: Imprimerie de la Bourse, 1987, p. 14

[4] Michael Rowley, Kanji Pict・O・Graphix, Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 1992, p. 102

[5] James W. Heisig, Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1, Tokyo: Japan Publications Trading Co., 2001, pp. 61-62 .

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