28 March 2006

Wordcatcher Tales: Japonica

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

What particular plant did Henry Reed intend to refer to in this poem? (I remember reading it in an English lit class during my freshman year at the University of Richmond in the spring of 1968—before I dropped out of ROTC, and then out of college altogether, ending up in the Army anyway.) I'm guessing either camellia or Japanese quince, both of which bloom in the spring.

My Canon Wordtank edition of Reader's English–Japanese Dictionary lists three Japanese entries for English japonica, each telling its own story: ツバキ (camellia), ボケ (Japanese quince), and サルスベリ (crape myrtle).

椿 tsubaki, Camellia japonica - The cherry blossoms are getting all the attention in the Kanto (Greater Tokyo) area these days as they reach their peak, but the light pink to dark crimson camellias have been in full flower for a few weeks already. A great variety of cultivars of Camellia japonica are all over the place, often in hedges.

木瓜 boke, Chaenomeles speciosa - Japanese quince is also known as Chaenomeles japonica. The normal Sino-Japanese reading for the name of the plant should be mokka (< moku 'tree' + ka 'melon'), the name owing something to its melonlike fruit. Another name for a flowering tree formed on the same pattern is 木蓮 or 木蘭 mokuren (lit. 'tree lotus' or 'tree orchid'), Magnolia liliflora or lily magnolia. A slightly different variety of Magnolia, Magnolia kobus—from its Japanese name 辛夷 kobushi—is in full, brilliant white bloom these days.

百日紅 sarusuberi (lit. 'monkey slide'), Lagerstroemina indica - The native Japanese name for crape myrtle describes its smooth (guavalike) trunk and stems, while the Chinese characters describe the flowers, but the two names bear no relation to each other beyond referring to the same plant. You can pronounce the name of the plant according to the characters as hyakunichikou (lit. 'hundred day red'), but I'm not sure how many Japanese speakers would recognize it by that name on first hearing it. (I would have spelled the name in English as crepe myrtle, but the spelling crape myrtle generates a much larger number of hits on google.co.jp.)

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