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And speaking of gutters

   When learning a language in the country where the language is spoken you may find that you will sometimes be able to not only remember the meaning of a given word but also recall with great detail when and where the word was first learned or who first uttered that word to you in a way that you understood. Because of this, even the most prosaic of words may come to carry far more weight, nuance, and contain memories far richer than those leaned from textbooks.

   For instance, I cannot remember when or where I first learned the English word “gutter”, yet I will always associate its Japanese equivalent, mizo, with my first girlfriend in Japan.

   It was a hot midsummer’s evening, the rainy season had finally come to an end, and the two of us were making our way towards an old izakaya (pub) in the neighborhood.

   As we walked down the narrow, sloping road that led away from my apartment I asked her something that I had been wondering about for weeks: how she had come to get the scar on her forehead. It wasn’t what I would call an ugly or particularly conspicuous scar, certainly not like the one-inch gash leading from my left nostril to my mouth that a dear friend in elementary school christened “The Snot Canal”, but it was there all the same and would stand out in a certain light.

   My girlfriend touched the scar and said, “Oh this? When I was about three, I tripped and fell into the, the, . . . the mizo.”

   “The what?”

   “That,” she said, pointing at the open concrete ditch that lined the road.

   “The gutter?”

   “The gutter! Yes! I fell into the gutter.”

   Why Japan with its otherwise state-of-the-art infrastructure doesn’t cover these driving hazards (And while you’re at it, bury the goddamn telephone wires!) is neither here nor there. What’s interesting to me is that I can recall so vividly where I first learned that and so many, many other words in Japanese.[1]

   Incidentally, my three-year-old son recently taught me the word yattsukeru (遣っ付ける). Meaning “to finish off”, as in kill something, to “vanquish”, or “let someone have it”, among other things, Yu-kun said it after he had smashed a bug with a rolled up newspaper. Who taught him the word, I haven’t the slightest clue, but I will never forget when he said it for the first time and the reaction his mother and grandmother had upon hearing him say it with such triumph and élan.

   The only trouble I have found with this kind of acquisition of new vocabulary is that the memories surrounding a word are sometimes so rich and detailed that there's sometimes little room for anything else. I can get so caught up wrapping words in memories before packing them away in my head, only to find later that I have misplaced the word altogether.


[1] Another word that girlfriend taught me was hayaku.

   It was early in the morning and we were getting ready to leave for our long-anticipated trip to the onsen (hot spring) resort of Beppu, Ôita. My girlfriend who was downstairs waiting by her car called up to me, “Aonghas! Aonghas!”

   “What?” I called back.



   “Hayaku! Hayaku!”

   I had no idea what she was trying to tell me. “Hold on a sec,” I said as I popped back into my apartment to fetch my Japanese-English dictionary. “Ha . . . Haya . . . Hayai. Hayaku. Ah, here it is . . . Oh dear.”

   She had been telling me to get the lead out, to hurry up.



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