Cool Kanji – 微

Some guys wish they were taller. Others wish they had more money or were better looking. I wish I could drink more coffee. I have written about the reasoning previously – drinking coffee makes you cool, duh.

When I went out to coffee with a Japanese friend last Friday, I was trying to explain my caffeine deficiencies. I get a massive initial rush and then crash hard not long after, often requiring a nap. (Although I do feel like a genius during the rush.) I opt instead for tea, and I dole it out in small amounts from a thermos so that I can have lots of little doses to sustain me through the day.

I was having a hell of a time explaining this. I went round and round, dodging the potholes that have worked their way into my vocabulary over the past five months, trying to get my point across. Finally she figured it out and said, ああ、微調整. And I was like, なるほど!

I won’t go into 調整 (ちょうせい) all that much – it means to adjust/to make adjustments. The real point of the post is to take a closer look at the prefix 微 (び). You’ve probably already gathered this from my story, but 微 in this case means “small” or “slight” – I make small or slight adjustments in my caffeine level to prevent any highs and lows.

If you are a fan of Japanese canned coffee, you might have recognized this character from 微糖 (びとう), which means a small amount of sugar. This is less sugar than 低糖 (ていとう), which means low sugar. But these are two-character compounds, and 微 isn’t as clearly a prefix. A quick perusal of ALC reveals that 微気候 (びきこう, microclimate), 微欠点 (びけってん, minor defect), and 微生物 (びせいぶつ, microorganism) are other examples of 微 in action as a prefix. So a good English equivalent is “micro,” but it doesn’t always work – “microdefect” doesn’t sound quite right.

The moral of the story is know your prefixes and know their pronunciations; they’ll make it much easier to parse long kanji compounds and will make your Japanese much more efficient.

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