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In Good Hands2011.04.04

    Did you ever stop to notice how often we speak with our hands? Not just in the sense of animated gestures or telling a story, but how many ways we use the word hand in our common speech. This simple word in English, including its meanings as a noun, verb, adjective, or idiom has close to a hundred meanings. You can raise your hand, lend a hand, be a good hand, write in a good hand, ask for her hand, be dealt a good hand, hand in your resignation, try your hand at, be at hand, on hand, out of hand, or even throw up your hands trying to think of all the uses we have for the word hand.


    This is not surprising, considering how handy it is to have hands. You’d have your hands full trying to get a handle on all of this, if it weren’t for the work people have done in compiling dictionaries and handbooks on the subject.


    What is even more surprising is that looking at the number of words in Japanese using the word hand, English has comparatively few such expressions. According to a dictionary of body expressions (からだことば辞典 Karada Kotoba Jiten, edited by Tg Toshio, published by Tkyd Shuppan), there are 668 words and expressions in Japanese using the word hand (手 te, shu)! It is a long list, including such common expressions as:


    手を打つ (te wo utsu, take action or make a move)、手が足りない (te ga tarinai, not have enough help)、手が空く (te ga aku, to be free, to have a minute)、手に入れる (te ni ireru, to get hold of, to acquire)、手に負えない (te ni oenai, to be out of control, have your hands full)、手を使う (te wo tsukau, to use some means), 手段 (shudan, method, approach)、上手 (jzu, skillful, good at)、手帳 (tech, day planner, diary),手習い (tenarai, learn by doing)、小手先 (kotesaki, done with the fingertips, without engagement)、手数 (tes, go to extra trouble, troublesome)、手元 (temoto, at hand)、手間 (tema, energy, effort)、手話 (shuwa, sign language)、手口 (teguchi, devious method, deception)、手違い (techigai, mistake, error)、手ぶら (tebura, hands free, empty-handed).


    There hundreds of such words, and while most of these words and expressions in Japanese can be translated into English, when doing so the word hand usually is absent in the English equivalent.


    Moreover, there are far fewer expressions in English than in Japanese using parts of the body to express an action, attitude, or condition. The aforementioned dictionary of Japanese body expressions is 371 pages long, and the table of contents is divided into words using 73 different parts of the body. There are 571 expressions listed using the word for eye (目 me), compared to some 40 expressions using eye in English; 153 expressions listed using the word for blood (血 chi), compared to 24 in English; and 51 for knee (膝 hiza), compared to 14 in English, in the online dictionary above.


    Many words which in English describe moods, intentions, and attitudes in emotional or psychological terms, are expressed in Japanese in a visual or visceral way, using physical body expressions, often using Manga-like imagery. A person with a stubborn or cranky attitude, in Japanese is said to have a mouth like the letter へ (he), or a twisted navel (へそ曲がり heso magari). A person who is angry, in Japanese is said to have their abdomen stand up (腹が立つ hara ga tatsu), or things come up to their head (頭に来る atama ni kuru).


    A more abridged reference containing common idioms about the body, with English equivalents and examples is Power Japanese "Body" Language, by Jeffrey G. Garrison, published by Kdansha International.


    To a curious degree, Japanese is an exceptionally body-centered language. You can speculate on the reasons for this, whether it is the strong cultural roots in physical engagement in crafts and disciplines, the influence of Zen culture and its emphasis on living in the present, or the Manga tradition. Whereas Italian and French might be more sensual, Japanese appears to be more visceral in comparison with English. Nor did they inherit the Western tradition of Rationalism and mind-body dualism, the view expressed by Ren Descartes that, "I think, therefore I am."


    It seems that in the Japanese language, body language is in good hands.


    William Reed


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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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