The Lister List

Chinese terminology

In connection with the recent discussion about the Chinese words for "paperfolding", perhaps I may repeat something which I have mentioned in Origami-L before, but which adds a sidelight on the words we use for folding.

:Lillian Oppenheimer, of course, always called paperfolding "origami" and at one time I assumed that she had picked this up unconsciously from Gershon Legman's use of the term (which he got from Yoshizawa) and from the English-language books by Isao Honda and other Japanese authors which were inevitably named "Origami" and which were beginning to flood the American market in the 1950s.

However, when I met her for the last time when she came to London shortly before her death (December,1999, I think it was), I asked her directly about it.

Lillian said that her adoption and use of the word "origami" was entirely deliberate. She found that people confused the word "paperfolding" with other paper crafts and she wanted a distinctive name for our art. She also thought that the word "paperfolding" was a dull sort of word and I have to agree with her, even though I, myself, tend to use the word "paperfolding" when I am discussing things in the context of paperfolding in Europe or China or where the word "origami" otherwise seems to be inappropriate.

Lillian asked first about the Chinese word for paperfolding, but she said that she found it not only unpronouceable, but also unattractive She then asked about the Japanese word and was told it was "Origami". This entirely suited her purposes. It was an attractive word with eastern overtones. It was easy for westerners to pronounce and very distinctive. So from then on she used it exclusively and the rest is history.

I presume that the Chinese words for paperfolding differ according to the particular dialect of Chinese used: it would be interesting to have a list of the words from all of the main dialects. I understand, however, that as far as the written characters are concerned, these are the same, whatever the dialect.

The Word "origami" was used in one or two small publictions which also used English before the Second World War, but as a Japanese word.The word "origami" first appeared in a true English-language book in Robert Harbin's "Paper Magic" (1956). Even then it was not used as a word adopted into English, but specifically as the Japanese word for paperfolding. Iona Opie (of fame as the joint author with her huspand, Peter Opie, who had now died, of the famous book, "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren" and its successor volumes) was consulted by the Oxford University Press about the word "origami" for the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, which was then being compiled. She got in touch with Gershon Legman, who, unfortunately got his dates wrong. Nevertheless, the compilers of the dictionary in their wisdom decided to accept the appearance in Robert Harbin's "Paper Magic" as the first appearance of the word "origami" in English. (My source for this is a letter from Iona Opie, herself).

I really seem to have strayed a long way from the Chinese for paperfolding, but one more diversion may not come amiss. In English, we use the word "paperfolding" and assume that this is ancient usage. However, it seems it does not date from earlier than the middle of the 19th Century. The English may, indeed be adopted from the German word "papierfalten", and it seems that that word was adopted by the followers of Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten, who introduced paperfolding as an activity for his young pupils.

The Spanish word "papiroflexia" is even more recent. This was invented by Dr. Solorzano, the Spanish dentist, probably in the 1930s, who had previously emigrated emigrated to Argentina.

The origins of all these words deserve more attention than they have received so far and if anyone can give me any more information, or put me right where I have got things wrong, I shall be pleased if they will let me know.

Now I'm off to the BOS convention at York.

David Lister.

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Rabbit by Stephen O'Hanlon