Japanese 手(hand) : usages and expressions

By | June 19, 2015

In Japanese, the word for ‘hand’ is written as 手 and pronounced close to the English “te” sound from “tell”. In this post I’ll talk about a few words that use this character, plus other meanings of it.

To start with, in baby-speak the word “お手手” (otete) is often used to mean “hand”.

The word for “wrist” is “手首” (tekubi) which is literally “hand neck”, and if you think about it the neck is sort of the same shape as the wrist. Ankle is “足首”(ashikubi).

Another meaning of 手 is “plan” or “method”. For example:

  • そういうもあるね。
  • That’s one other way to do it (literally: “there is also that method”)

手 can also be used to mean a “move” in a game like Chess or Japanese Chess (将棋, shogi). So the first move would be called 一手目(itteme), the second 二手目 (niteme), and so on. In both games, when your king is under attack you would say “王手” (oute), which literally means “king hand” and corresponds to the phrase “Check!” in English.

The word 手強い refers to being strong (like an opponent), and although it can be pronounced as “tezuyoi”, I think it’s more commonly pronounced “tegowai”. This is ironic since it sounds a little like “yowai” (弱い) which means “weak”.

The word 大手 (oote, literally “big hand”) refers to something of large scale, for example 大手会社 would be a large-scale company (like Apple Computer).

手 can be used at the end of word to mean someone doing an action, similar to the ending “-er” in English. For example”

  • 話し手 (hanashi te) – speaker
  • 聞き手 (kiki te) – listener
  • 売り手 (uri te) – seller
  • 買い手 (kai te) – buyer

There are many Kanji compounds that use 手 and refer to the number of hands or type of hand.

  • 片手 (kata te) – one hand (either)
  • 両手(ryou te) – both hands
  • 右手 (migi te) – right hand
  • 左手(hidari te) – left hand

In some cases 手 is pronounced as “shu” in compounds:

  • 手裏剣 (shuriken) – throwing star
  • 入手 (nyuushu) – get, obtain, purchase

The expresions 手に入る (te ni hairu) and 手に入れる (te ni ireru) literally mean something come into the hand or is put into the hand, and correspond to something being obtained or obtaining it actively.

  • その車はなかなか手に入らないよ。
  • That car is very hard to get a hold of.
  • 手に入れたいものがある。
  • There is something I want to obtain.
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