Friday, January 2, 2009

from: Ben O.
to: Tian
date: Thu, Jan 1, 2009 at 8:32 PM
subject: Please tell me my friend's tattoo means "understand"

Hi Tian,

I hope you don't mind me asking, but my friend just got this tattoo and says it means "listen/understand". I've seen enough of Hanzi Smatter to cringe even before I know how bad it is. What's the verdict?

Ben O.

We don't really want to beat up on this lovely lady and her cute tattoo too much, but the fact is that the character by itself probably does not mean quite what she thinks it does.

First, we have to decide whether the tattoo is supposed to be in Chinese or Japanese.

If it is supposed to be Chinese, a single character is fine, but the Chinese meaning of the character is more like "to bear, to carry" or "to undertake" or "to receive." But none of these meanings is even close to the intended meaning of "listen/understand."

If it is supposed to be Japanese, the single character does not have much meaning, but rather if it is supposed to be a verb, it must be written with two characters: 承る. Now this verb has various meanings and some of them are somewhat close to "listen" or "understand," but mostly the word is used as a very humble and polite way to agree with the other person in a conversation, so one might say 承ります when one means "I hear you" or "I understand your point." It is really nothing like "listen."

We guess this is the only way we could stretch the meaning of to something like "hear" or "understand" but we don't think is really what they meant and even that is a stretch because the verb marker is missing from 承る.

So unfortunately, this is a case of "close but no cigar."

Ben, give our best regards and sincere commiseration to the unfortunately tattooed friend.


  1. 承る=uketamawaru, (to understand) needs the る (ru) suffix all-right...but when the verbal noun form uketamawari is used, り (ri) okurigana can be used, but it could be left as itself also.

  2. Ulas writes:
    when the verbal noun form uketamawari is used, (ri) okurigana can be used, but it could be left as itself also.

    Yes, of course. The noun form uketamawari can be written 承り or simply 承, but then it can no longer mean "to understand" or even the noun "understanding." This noun form is rare in modern Japanese and perhaps should be best translated a "command received from one's lord or superior."


  3. I agree with Ulas. I know it's traditional here to show nothing but open contempt for people who dare to get a Chinese character tattoo, but this doesn't seem that bad to me. Okurigana are typically dropped in this context (a る would look silly), and even the Chinese interpretation doesn't seem that far off the mark.

  4. The implication of that kanji is "acquiesce".

  5. One form change might change the whole meaning....I can see that.

    Personal names in verb form such as Manabu, Kaoru, Mamoru, Satoru etc. are also written with one Kanji, without the okurigana. This is not a name of course...I've written as just a side note.

  6. It doesn't take that much to go from "to receive or to carry", in which sense this word is more commonly used, to "hear or understand." It is a stretch, but one that is semantically traceable.

    Here is how. In old Chinese this verb can be followed by such nouns as "an instruction", "a lesson", "a reproach", etc. invariably from one's senior or superior. Obviously, "to receive or carry one of the above" means to have heard or accepted it. Hence the sense of hear or understand.

    I don't know much about Japanese but I think I won't be too wrong to say that 承 is one of the kanjis whose meaning and etymology can be traced back to classic Chinese.

  7. Hmmm... What's the possibility that someone was being cute and thought that the human ear looked enough like る to _use_ it as such? So, 承 {ear} is meant to be "承る"?

  8. I have to disagree a bit with some of what's been written...

    A Japanese person seeing this wouldn't think "oh, uketamawaru, but it's missing the ru" or "oh, uketamawari, in the noun form".

    They would think, "oh it's 'shou' (しょう), as in 'accept'".

    (ie 承認、承知、承諾、了承)

    As a word, it wouldn't work standing alone. But Kanji also works as a symbol, so it can have meaning on its own (without the -る or having to be the "noun form") ala the annual Kanji at Kiyomizedera, for example.

    Just my two yen/yuan

  9. Sorry, misspell

    Kiyomizudera 清水寺

  10. Here's what Kenkyusha has to say on that: 承る うけたまわる【承る】 (uketamawaru)
    〔聞く〕 hear; listen to…; 〔聞き知る〕 be told; know; be informed; understand; 〔(命令を)受ける〕 receive 《a command》; 〔(注文を)受ける〕 accept [take] 《an order》.