Coming into the office today, this thought – or rather, this word – popped into my head.
The word future in Korean – 미래 – is merely the surface representation of the Hanja (Chinese characters) 未來 (みらい in Japanese; wèilái in Mandarin Chinese). And I started thinking about the meaning of the individual characters.
The first character 未 is used often as the first syllable in a two-syllable word in Korean to denote ‘not’ or ‘un-‘, effectively negating or diminishing the effect or meaning of the following syllable. I venture a guess to say that the character is used similarly in Japanese and Chinese, although I cannot say with absolute certainty as I am not well-read enough nor a native speaker in those languages.
Some examples of this character in use are as follows:
미흡 (未洽) – inadequate, insufficient
미숙 (未熟) – immature
And the second character of our word at the outset is 來, meaning ‘to come’. Now comes the kicker. In my mind, I got thinking about the semantic communion of these two characters, side by side. Perhaps a literal translation could be rendered as ‘un-come’ or ‘not-come’. A more convenient construal – and philosophical – could be ‘that which has not yet come’.
This is the more natural meaning that occurred in my mind as I was walking on a quiet alleyway to the office during a Thursday during Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) week.
And I kind of liked it because it has something of a philosophical meaning to it. Perhaps even a deterministic ring to it. The future, in the Chinese, is something that has not come yet. In time, it will come.
As soon as I got into the office, I looked up the etymology of the word ‘future’. Dictionary.com and the online Oxford English dictionaries traced the etymology of the now English word future back up to Latin fūtūrus, which apparently means ‘about to be’, coming from the future participle of the verb ‘to be’ – esse. The online Oxford English dictionary also noted that the future participle form of esse comes from the stem -fu, which ultimately came from a base meaning of ‘grow, become‘. So in that sense, the connotation of the word future in English can be construed as being ‘about to grow’ or ‘about to become’. Of course, these are all my own conjectures and interpretations, which are all subservient to any rectification or adjustment.
In all, it intrigues me to ponder in what different – yet similar – ways the Latin and Chinese captured into writing that concept of what comes next in the changing states of our lives. The Latin seems to say that with the passing of time, we grow or we become: we change with the times, and hopefully for the better. And the Chinese seems to say that the future is something that is not yet come, but inevitably will, so long as the time continues its relentless march. The Latin kind of has a sort of optimistic glow or outlook on what the future holds, while I feel that the Chinese gives off a sense of mystery and curious pondering of what that which will befall me going forward. I like this kind of thing. It feels to me like etymology with sensibilities. And etymology is after all, a history of a people’s outlook on life, so long as words can be said to capture the sense of what people thought and felt at the time.