Today, we'll look at a simpler kanji representing "insect" that appears in some non-insect compounds, and even as a radical in some non-insect kanji.
|虫||At a Glance (details at jisho.org)|
|Meaning Bug, insect, temper|
|Vocabulary 昆虫 (insect), 虹 (rainbow), ...|
|Similar 中 (center, inside); 蛍 (firefly)|
|Variants 蟲 (rare)|
|To Remember contains but not as radical: 風, 強|
虫 originally represented a venomous, coiled snake; the historical forms of the character make that more apparent. The tripled character 蟲 represented worms and insect-like creatures.
In time, 虫 took the meaning of insects and similar creepy-crawlies, and 虺 stepped in to represent snakes. In Japanese, 虺 is very rare, and 蛇 is a 常用 character meaning "snake".
What sorts of things (animals and otherwise) have a bug-like nature?
On Nov. 3, 1989, the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip featured Calvin delivering an oral report to his first-grade class about bats. After he described bats as "unspeakable giant bugs", the entire class retorted: "BATS AREN'T BUGS!"
This is true: mammals and insects are very different animals. On a hunch, however, I looked up the Japanese word for "bat", since the 虫 radical does appear in some non-arthropod characters, and sure enough, it's there, twice:
In the jisho.org entries, these two kanji always appear together. Both mean "bat", and both are Hyougai kanji (表外漢字), less common kanji which belong neither to the 常用 list (everyday use) or the 人名用 list (approved for personal names).
Only the former (蝙) has the full "こうもり" 訓読み reading that is used also for the compound. Only the latter (蝠) has historical forms listed (bone script, seal script, etc.)
虫 (むし, チュウ) itself is a 常用 kanji, and appears in several compounds. Here are a few:
|単語||意味||例え / コメント|
|虫||Bug; insect; cricket; moth; worm||鳥は虫を探していた. The bird was looking for worms.|
|昆虫||Bug, insect||昆虫, a more formal word, means more strictly "insect" (member of arthropod > hexapod) while 虫 alone includes more creepy-crawlies such as centipedes, spiders, etc.|
|益虫||Useful insect||益 (benefit, profit) also guest stars in some kaomoji|
|虫歯||cavity, decayed tooth||"Bug tooth" is quite a vivid image.|
|弱虫||coward, weakling||"weak bug"|
|水虫||Athlete's foot; or water boatman (type of waterbug)|
虫 tends to appear in names of insects, allude to certain afflictions, and describe some unfavorable personality traits. This is not so far from English ("caught a flu bug"; "buzz off"; "stop bugging me"). Let's look at some kanji where 虫 appears as a radical or component.
|単語||意味||例え / コメント|
|虱||Lice; vermin||Merits its own kanji|
|蚊||Mosquito||Spanish for "little fly" (mosca + ito)|
|蜂||Bee, wasp, hornet||蜂蜜, "honey", usually written as hiragana|
|蚣||Centipede, grasshopper||though centipede, 百足, is usually written using kana alone|
|風||Wind; style||The radical is not 虫, but 風 itself. But the bug is there.|
|虹||Rainbow||My favorite type of insect. More on this later|
|騒ぐ||To make noise||Mnemonic: "Again with the horse and the bug!"|
|蟲||Insect, bug, temper||Rare; certainly less questionable than 姦|
|蠱||rice worm; lead astray||3 bugs on a plate; featured in 蠱惑 (glamour, enchantment, seduction)|
|蚯蚓蜥蜴||worm lizard, amphisbaenian||usually written using kana alone, unfortunately; 4 kanji all using the 虫 radical|
|蝌蚪||tadpole||also refers to an ancient seal-script character|
The readings of 虫 lend themselves to some bad puns. A ゴキブリ (cockroach) might answer the phone with "虫虫" instead of "もしもし". And Klendathu, the "bug planet" from Starship Troopers, could be represented as 虫国, at the risk of insulting over a billion people. We'll stop before these get really bad.
How does 虹 arise from 虫? It's not borrowing a on reading (as many kanji do from a component); 虫 is the radical. The Wiktionary page sheds a little light on the etymology of these words.
A rainbow's components are 虫 (bug; originally snake) and 工 (construction); the most plausible explanation I found of its origins are that a rainbow curves like a snake or worm, and 工 (in some flavors of Chinese) contributes to the sound of 虹.
I'd like to find out more about this, but I'll need to learn more Japanese (and Chinese) to expand the set of sources I can find.
One parting thought: 独 (alone, single, bachelor) includes 虫 and the "dog" radical (犭), and also represents Germany: 独逸. Thanks for reading!