This week: We’re using math to prevent bad luck. You’re just going to have to trust me on this, so read on!
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Happy New Year Redux
The week after New Year’s always provides an unusual challengeor two in the form of translating the myriad Japanese charms, amulets, talismans and all their concomitant fortunes and blessings into English. Daunting doesn’t even begin to cover it. And yet, it’s one of my favorite parts of my job. I always learn something interesting. This year has been no exception.
As classes have resumed, students have been telling me about the things they got up while we were all on vacation. Things like this: “I went to the shrine and asked the priest for an azimuth exclusion for my husband and myself because this is our unlucky year.”
Now, if you’re like me, you’re thinking that that is a perfectly cromulent sentence only, at the same time, not. Because, uhm, what’s an azimuth and why are we excluding it?
So, let’s back up and get some context: In Japan people celebrate New Year’s by making a visit to their local Shinto shrine and performing various rituals. Most people make a short prayer at the shrine proper and throw some coins into the collection trough. And, that done, they proceed to purchase any number of amulets for either attracting good fortune or warding off bad luck.
These charms come in an incredible variety. Some are based on the lunar calendar, some on the year someone was born, and some are based on how old you’ll become during the coming year, which is the category my student opted for. Depending on how old you’ll turn, there are a number of predictions and warnings that you should ascribe to and buy the appropriate charm for.
Which brings us back to the azimuth and why we want to exclude it. My student had started with the Japanese phrase 方位除け, which Google translate rendered as azimuth exclusion. But what is an azimuth?
As it turns out, azimuth is a fairly common term related to defining angles used in the fields of astronomy, artillery, and navigation. From Merriam-Webster online:
1: an arc of the horizon measured between a fixed point (such as true north) and the vertical circle passing through the center of an object usually in astronomy and navigation clockwise from the north point through 360 degrees
2: horizontal direction expressed as the angular distance between the direction of a fixed point (such as the observer's heading) and the direction of the object
Okay. Those are words that might mean something to someone but that someone is not me. Maybe Wikipedia can put it in more accessible terms?
Mathematically, the relative position vector from an observer (origin) to a point of interest is projected perpendicularly onto a reference plane (the horizontal plane); the angle between the projected vector and a reference vector on the reference plane is called the azimuth.
So, that’s a no, then. Maybe our other, usual sources can help… Well, Etymonline tells us that the word comes from Arabic in the 14th century and is related to zenith. Meanwhile, Thesaurus (dot com) doesn’t even have an entry for it. So, maybe we’re going about this the wrong way. After all, we do have a definition for azimuth now, but that’s not what we really want to know - we want to know why we should be excluding it.
When we look at the individual components of the Japanese phrase, 方位除け, things start to become clearer: The first part of the phrase is 方位 (pronounced ほうい / houi) and, according to Jisho.org, it does mean “azimuth.” But it also means “bearing; heading; point of the compass,” and that’s going to be important in a minute. But first, the second half of the phrase, 除け, is a fairly common noun meaning “protection; repellent,” (and pronounced よけ / yoke). Tellingly, however, the kanji in yoke can actually mean “exclude, abolish, cancel,” and several other related words depending on the kanji and particles with which it is used.
So, we can see where Google came up with the idea of “azimuth exclusion,” only a better translation might be protection against a particular compass heading. When we look up the phrase in Japanesewe learn that we all have several stars that govern our fortunes. Depending on the year and the location of these stars, good or bad fortune can occur. Thus, we might need an “azimuth exclusion” in order to block the bad fortune from a particular star during a particular year.
Which brings us right back to where we started, buying charms and talismans based on our age, the calendar year, and, apparently, the location of the stars that govern our lives.
In lieu of a rabbit hole this week, I want to share something exciting. Next month, February 2023, the LingCom and LingFest virtual conference will be held online. I’m planning to attend to the former and to run a small even at the latter.
So, you may have noticed a new tab at the top of the Learned homepage called “LingFest 23.” As I have details available, I’ll add them there. But, the short version is, I’m hoping to run a workshop about playing with words as a form of directed and purposeful creativity.
In other words, I’m going to lead an online Zoom call where I walk you through some fun exercises about playing with words. Although the presentation is still evolving, the exercises are ones I’ve created for myself, for creative writing classes, and for working with kids. They’re all proven and interesting and I hope you’ll come along to see what I’ve cooked up.
The workshop will be free and available to anyone who wants to attend, regardless of participation in either LingCom or LingFest, although I’d encourage you to attend both!
From the Archives
I’ve talked about astrology a few times over the years, but I think the first issue dedicated to it came in the very first volume of Learned, back in 2018. Here’s Issue 15: Neon. Enjoy!
Beyond the mortally difficult challenge of just going back to work, I mean.
I’ll take “Fields in which I have no direct or relevant experience” for $1000 please Alex.
Although, more seriously, they do have a very useful diagram that helps to explain the concepts involved.
Admittedly, this should have been the first step, but my brain got hung up on New Word and wouldn’t process further.
I am amalgamating information and explanations from a bunch of different Japanese websites here, but nothing that could be considered definitive.
This is a surface level explanation, obviously. Kind of like how snorkeling over the Marianas Trench is surface level swimming.
If I’m being honest, at the end of all this, I feel like I have a better handle on houiyoke, or azimuth exclusion than I do on azimuth all on its own. And that’s fine. For now. But I would like to be able to explain concepts like azimuth more confidently; I would like to be better at math in general. Maybe someday.
Joel, your letters are always interesting, but this one really drew me in. Truly fascinating. I need to get back to Japan!