Thursday, August 13, 2009

What’s in a name?

■ イチョウ- 銀杏 the ginkgo tree

■ ぎんなん - 銀杏 the edible ginkgo 'nut'

■ ぎんきょう- 銀杏 (nonstandard reading)

Confusion for people in Ichou, err, Icho Ryu. I’ve had someone again ask me about the name Bernie chose for his art. So, I thought I'd throw up something I had written a while ago to explain this.

Forget any notions of the Lau family crest or any of that garbage that a few people put up on their now down websites. Ain’t true.

So, where did the Icho - Ichou come from?
Well, gather round children, there is a history of language lesson to be found in the name. First, there is a convoluted aspect to the use of Icho or Ichou (romaji). The correct Kanji for Ichou are really not pronounced that way. The correct pronunciation of the two Kanji is really “Gin” meaning silver, and “an” meaning apricot. Together, they mean silver apricot. This refers to the color and shape of the fruit of the Ginkgo tree.

The origins of this are vague. The original Chinese characters (hanzi) are thought to be “ya” and “jiao”-“chiao” and meant “Ducks foot”. This refers to the shape of the tree’s leaves. OK, makes sense so far. Some where along the way, the Chinese began to use “Yin” and “Xing” which are the same Chinese hanzi as the Japanese kanji “gin” and “an”- which is also sometimes pronounced as “kyou”, meaning silver apricot, referring to the tree’s fruit. Still make sense?

Some time later, the Chinese began to use “bai” and “gou” referring to “White” and “Fruit”. Again, this is descriptive of the fruit of the tree. So, we now have Ya+ Jiao/Chiao, Yin+Xing, and “Bai+Gou” all referring to the same thing. Confused yet?

Then how did these come to be pronounced as “Icho - Ichou”?
One theory is the pronunciation is a corruption of the Southern Chinese (Cantonese) pronunciation of the characters, which is Ichao or Ichau. Another theory, the use of the Chinese characters – kanji -“Gin” and “an-kyou” retained the Chinese characters pronunciation of Ya + Jiao for some reason. This pronunciation seems to have eventually evolved into Icho or Ichou. No one knows why.

OK, with me still? Now, this is all theory and supposition. No one actually can pin this name down accurately. No one is sure where the Ichou really came from in terms of Japanese use. Even the Chinese use of the terms Ya Jiao, Bai Gou, and Yin Xing are muddled together by the Chinese in everyday use. I personally tend to think it’s a corruption of the Cantonese pronunciation.

In Japanese, the context is key to the usage. Icho or Ichou (depending on the romaji use) refers to the tree, ginnan refers to the fruit, and they both use the same kanji. The context determines the pronunciation for the kanji. “That is a beautiful Ichou Tree” and “I’m cooking tofu with some herbs, including some gin-nan, for dinner.” Does that make sense to you? This illustrates context, and why you can’t pin down exact translations using Romaji alone. Context is extremely important in determining the correct kanji and meaning.

So where did Gingko come from?
Which brings us up to the current day use. No one is sure where name ginkgo came from. Some theorize it’s a variant of the kanji pronunciation “kyou” for the kanji “an”- (Gin+kyou). Blame for this is usually laid on Kaempfer, who gave it the Latin name of gingko. And no one knows why he did or how it came about since it’s not a commonly used variant. Another theory is it was a simple mistake in writing and became the common use. But theories I’ve read on the Hepburn Romaji used at the time giving rise to the English name of gingko coming from Gin+kyou doesn’t fit in terms of historical time frames. So, once again, we really don’t know for sure.

So, what we have left to us is Bernie picked a name with a linguistically convoluted history, to name his martial art theories and practices. And it was simply because he liked ginkgo trees. See the Icho Ryu mon for proof. See the ginkgo leaves?

He used the Japanese pronunciation “Icho” to frame it in what he thought was the proper Japanese context. This makes for some convoluted looks when telling some Japanese visitors, and Japanese language teachers, that you study Icho Ryu, since they can’t figure out the context. As several friends who speak Japanese fluently tell me, “Well, it is what it is, isn’t it? Not like Japanese language and culture isn’t full of quirks anyway.”

My personal interpretation when Bernie announced he was going to be calling his teachings Icho Ryu, I asked him if he was naming it after his Doberman Pinscher, named Icho. Even back then I was a smart ass.

Bottom line, it’s perfectly fitting to have a convoluted name and kanji use for Icho Ryu. Like what we practice, it’s often hard to explain.

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