[FOUNTAIN]When words fail to convey a meaning

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[FOUNTAIN]When words fail to convey a meaning

The roots of the word “company” have an interesting meaning. In Latin, com means together and pan comes from panis, or bread. Therefore, the original meaning was “eating bread together,” and a company referred to an organization of people assembled to earn money and eat bread together. While European guild members were the first to use the word “company,” in the early 14th century, it appeared in written records in the mid-16th century.
The Japanese translated the word, “company,” as “kaisha” in the late 19th century during the Meiji period when Western civilization was introduced to Japan. Never having the concept of a company in its culture, the Japanese had a hard time finding a perfect word for it.
Anther English word the Japanese struggled to translate was “society.” Since Japan had no concept equivalent to Western society, they had to invent a word.
What they came up with was shakai, a combination of the Chinese characters sha, an Earth god, and kai, a gathering. In China, the same characters referred to a festival of villagers dedicated to an Earth god. So the reference was to something completely different from the society Westerners conceived of.
To prevent “society” from being confused with the festival, the Japanese used to say ningen kaisha, meaning a company of people, to refer to a society. At one point, they used both kaisha and shakai to refer to a society. After the initial confusion, shakai ultimately settled in as a translation of society. Eventually, China followed the translation and used the same set of characters.
Once a society was translated to shakai, the Japanese decided on kaisha for a company. It is assumed that the root of the word, “company,” is similar to the meaning of the Chinese characters, holding an event together. Koreans must have picked up the Japanese translations for both words and read them sahoe for society and hoesa for a company.
But the labor-management relations of some companies are far from the original meaning of a company. Some union members staged a mock beheading of the company’s chairman, and the company threatened to fire all the union members. They avoided a catastrophic ending, but they are not eating bread together. We might have to coin a new word to refer to them.


by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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