Yesterday, while eating a watermelon, I wondered when and how Japan got their first watermelons. So I pulled out my Casio XD-GW9600* and did a search for すいか in the Britannica Encyclopedia. Oddly, I couldn’t find it. Undaunted (when have I ever been daunted?), I pressed the Kenkyusha’s giant J-E button but was surprised to find no watermelon. Then in desperation, sheer desperation**, I tried with no luck the 大辞泉 J-J dictionary.
You see, in each dictionary, I saw other 「すいか」 hits but couldn’t find watermelon. The problem was I was looking for water + melon 「水瓜」. I was positive those were the correct kanji.
The proverbial light bulb was slow to glow.
You see one time, way back when I was a JET, we were working on fruit names in a junior high class. I drew a oval watermelon on the chalkboard like what is found in the Southern United States. (fig 1)
Then I asked them, “What is this fruit?” The students were surprised by its size and shape, but answered, 「すいか」. Then one smart kid said, 「あ！英語と同じだ！漢字は「みず」と「メロン」ですね。」 That stuck in my head and gave me a false understanding of the kanji for watermelon that would haunt me for years to come. It was only yesterday when Yumi laughed and said, “That’s cute… but wrong” that I realized how wrong I was. It is very possible the teacher corrected the child, but I didn’t hear it. My brain was too busy connecting neurons for long term memory storage to notice. To think Yumi would one day mock the very work those brave neurons did for me. Oh well…
Just in case you’ve read this far and are asking, “What’s your point?”, I ‘ll tell you.
「西瓜」 is the correct kanji for ‘watermelon’ in Japanese. However, after doing a Google search for 「水瓜」 I came up with a few defensible points.
First, doing the Google search 「水瓜」 pulls up about 42,000 Chinese sites. Could this be how it is written in Chinese? I am too lazy to search for a Chinese dictionary to find out…
Second, this site seems to support that poor junior high student and my pre-yesterday understanding of kanji:
スイカ、漢字で書くと西瓜なのだけれど、もともとこれは支那国から伝わったもので、日本では 『水瓜』 とも書いていたみたいだね。
英語では watermelon というくらいだから、ボクは 『水瓜』 と書いた方がストレートで解りやすいし、スイカらしいと思うんだけどね！
Watermelon is written 西瓜 (western melon) in kanji. While it originally came from China, in Japan it is also written 水瓜 (water melon)
In English it is ‘watermelon’. Therefore I think writing it as 『水瓜』 is a straightforward, easy to understand and watermelon-ish way to write it
Third and Last, Jim Breen’s EDICT lists it as an alternate. But Eijiro and Sanseido, popular online dictionaries, don’t list it. We all know Breen is the king!
Oh, and if you are interested in its history with Japan, you may want to read this. After all the excitement over the 水・西瓜 controversy, I ran out of time to read about it myself, but I will… one day.
* Yet another shameless plug!
** I almost wrote ‘shear desperation’ but after consulting a dictionary I realized I didn’t have any desperate sheep to shear. I decided to use ‘sheer’ instead.