Parked under a bad sign
Dear WD: I have been wondering where the word “hara-kiri” originated. Till now I had though it was from Japanese but a friend of mine said it was from Hindi. Can you please clarify? — Deepak, Bangalore, India, via the Internet.
Sure, why not? I was contemplating suicide anyway, now that the mirror on my car is busted. I suppose I should explain. Car was parked on West 82nd Street in Manhattan. Big truck comes down street, smashes driver’s side mirror, continues on merry way. Policeman comes along, tickets car for broken mirror to the tune of $55. Policeman comes back 10 minutes later, writes another $55 ticket. Law allows him to write NINE such tickets per day. More lucrative for the City of New York than catching crooks, I guess. New mirror is on order, will arrive at dealer in two weeks. Tickets on car by then will total $6930, roughly three times what the car is worth on a good day. See what I mean? Why go on?
But go on I shall, of course. I have a question to answer.
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” (something I rarely get to do), you have been misinformed. “Hara-kiri” is indeed, as you thought, Japanese in origin, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Suicide by disembowelment, as formerly practiced by the samurai of Japan, when in circumstances of disgrace, or under sentence of death.” The term “hara-kiri” translates literally as “belly cutting,” and the practice consisted of stabbing oneself with a special ceremonial sword. I say “consisted” because occurrences of hara-kiri are very rare in modern Japan and the practice was outlawed as a form of capital punishment way back in 1873. Although “hara-kari” is the word most well-known in the West, the term “seppuku” (from the Chinese for “belly-cutting”) is preferred and more often heard in Japan itself.
Meanwhile, back in New York City, I am keeping watch on my car from the window of my fourth-floor apartment as I write. I have a dozen eggs, Grade A Large, stacked on my desk. Caveat ticketor, copper.