染 and dye vs taint

I pretty quickly noticed this kanji seems to mainly mean bad things, despite its given kanji meaning of “dye” having no negative connotations at all in English.
Let’s just take the first three listed vocal:
伝染病 : Contagious disease
感染 : Infection
汚染 : Pollution

Not pretty.

Its straight noun form is just stain. Also bad.

Only its verb form actually matches the kanji meaning.

Then I read the example sentence for 染まる


I’m worried that our kids will be tainted by this bad environment.

This struck me as very odd. Technically, the English semtence makes no sense with what you are taught. “Dyed” and “tainted” are in no way synonymous, in my dialect of English at least. Not even in the same ballpark. I’m pretty sure if you swapped the words out, it would sound very strange in any of yours, even if you have slightly different connotations for “dye”. Let’s try it:

I’m worried that our kids will be dyed by this bad environment.

A little bit weird, right? Not something anyone would ever say.

So it seems like even the verb forms have a very negative connotation. Such that even the basic example is not “dye”, but “taint”. Reading just the definition, I would have totally misunderstood the word.

Given all this, shouldn’t both the kanji, and the verbs be given the alternate meaning of “taint”, and possibly “stain”, when fully 100% of its vocabulary carry that connotation?

Or am I misreading this?


I’m not surprised that it does mean dye, I know that most every kanji is in vocabulary beyond WK, and I’m not surprised that its dye meaning would fit many of those.

It still seems that not even mentioning or touching upon the fact that it has a recurring meaning not really synonymous with dye is a big gap. Dye and infectious disease don’t have much connection in English. But, it makes perfect sense if you connect the example sentence meaning from somaru to said word.

It just feels odd to piece it together that way, even if it’s not hard, rather than just give that alternative meaning in the original kanji.

Also, even if I am off base, it feels like bad form to use a word in an example sentence, that they themselves wrote, using a meaning you don’t give.
If the example sentence reads “tainted”, it should probably give “to taint” as a synonym.

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The literal, original meaning of the kanji is ‘dye’, and if you look 染まる up in a dictionary, you’ll see that its first definition is ‘to be dyed’. I suggest that you see the meanings related to ‘staining’ and ‘tainting’ as figurative meanings. Indeed, ‘to dye’ and ‘to stain’ or ‘to taint’ aren’t synonyms in English, but this is Japanese, in which this link exists. I’ll try to explain why there isn’t such a huge ‘gap’ between these meanings. Here’s one way of looking at it: a substance that can colour or dye something is also able to stain it, and by extension taint it. For that matter, there is one field in which ‘to stain’ and ‘to dye’ are nearly synonyms in English: microscopy. Cells are often stained with special dyes in order to make them more visible. You could therefore also say that the cells are ‘dyed’, even though that seems less common in scientific parlance.

It might be helpful to take a look at this proverb involving colouring substances that Japanese took from Chinese in an abbreviated form, which might help you see where this idea came from:
‘If one mixes with vermillion, one will become red.’

The original Chinese proverb is ‘近朱者赤, 近墨者黑’. There are two ways of translating 者 in Classical Chinese: one, as in Japanese, would be ‘(such a) person’. The other would be to treat it as a particle similar to は. I’ll go with ‘person’ since there’s no comma after 者, but frankly, using a bit of both understandings is probably helpful since there isn’t any verb in the entire sentence: ‘One who is near vermillion is/becomes red; one who is near ink is/becomes black.’ The idea is that you are who you interact with; you are your environment. I think it’s safe to say that in the Japanese mind (and in the Chinese mind), 染 expresses this idea very clearly: we are ‘dyed’ (that is, ‘coloured’) by our environment.

I can’t really comment on WK’s choice of keyword when the literal meaning ‘to dye’ doesn’t seem to appear in any of the vocabulary words you mentioned, but I’d just like to say that I think knowing the literal meaning of the kanji, which isn’t just some defunct etymological meaning and is still widely used, is essential to understanding other uses down the road, whereas being taught the meaning ‘to taint’ or ‘to stain’ directly risks making 染 seem more negative than it actually is.

‘Hair dye’ is actually 染毛剤 or ヘアカラー according to my dictionary. 染髪 is the act of dying one’s hair. 染 is a verb in Chinese. Even if it weren’t a verb, what comes before modifies what comes after, so if anything, 染髪 should mean ‘hair’ is the main word, and it’s been modified by ‘dye’ i.e. dyed hair/dying hair or something like that. 髪染 (which doesn’t exist) would be the order that would fit ‘hair dye’ more closely, except that it doesn’t work because 染 isn’t a noun.


Personally I didn’t see a big jump between the concept of dye and taint except that dye has a positive connotation and taint has a negative one.

The verb 染まる certainly does mean “to be dyed” as I found when playing Pokemon:
The water is dyed a deep blue.


That is a good answer.

I don’t suggest replacing the primary meaning. Just adding a secondary like many kanji have.
I could tell we aren’t yet in a flower to English (英 ——> 英) situation yet.

Though, if anyone has any insight on the verbs, are they there yet? That is, is somaru often used to literally mean something being dyed (the given definition), or is it mainly used to mean being tainted (the example sentence)? This is obviously rather important to understanding the word.

Edit: Oops, looks like the above question was answered while I typed.

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Hm… like adding a default synonym for everyone instead of leaving users to add user synonyms? (I don’t actually use the SRS bit of WK. I’m just here for the forums, so I have to ask. :stuck_out_tongue:) I guess that would make sense though, and it might even help cement the existence of both meanings in users’ minds. Who knows?

I see the pun, but I’m not sure I understand… you mean that we’re not dealing with two radically different, unrelated meanings? (By the way, I didn’t know that 英 literally meant ‘flower’! I’m used to it being used to mean ‘outstanding’ or something similar in Chinese, which I guess is related, but turns out the ‘flower’ meaning exists in Classical/literary Chinese too. There’s always more to learn, eh?)

I’m not really sure if there’s a frequency chart anywhere. I think it’s more a question of whether we need the literal meaning or the figurative one more often. I’m not sure if there’s an alternative verb for stuff like @TheCodingFox’s example, and honestly, even there, it’s almost figurative. It might be more accurate to say it’s poetic, for that matter.

@anon43714060 Sorry if I came across as harsh. I just thought there might have been some confusion, so I figured I’d just bring out my old ‘what comes before modifies what comes after’ rule, since I think it’s helpful most of the time. It’s interesting to know that there’s a Wiki article about it, and it was a good example of the literal meaning being used! :slight_smile: I liked the other examples you raised too.

Yep, I’m pretty sure flower was the first.
From which we got hero (e.g. “flower of manhood”. Actual still kinda makes sense in English, right?)
Then we got English. I think as a sound based construction? (I don’t know what those are called in Chinese. But ateji basically)
Over time flower faded to only an archaic poetic use in Chinese, early enough it doesn’t even figure in Japanese really.
Now hero is mostly antiquated, though still exists in the word, well, hero, and more in Chinese than Japanese. So it’s given definition is it’s third meaning!

I’ve had はなぶさ for 英 show up in my Kanken pre-1 drills. But yeah… Not a generally known meaning.

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I have a feeling the ‘hero’ or ‘outstanding’ meaning is a little more common than you might think, but I don’t really have any evidence… For what it’s worth, 英才教育 is an entry in my dictionary: ‘special education for brilliant [gifted] children.’ Guess that means it’s fair from dead, even if you don’t really go around using the ‘hero’ sense much nowadays.

Mhm. Feels that way based on the kanji, and from the fact that it’s the first definition in my Chinese dictionary. Guess you’re right about the ‘fading away’ stuff too. 花 is far more common in both English and Chinese.

It seems the term is 音訳(おんやく)in both Japanese and in Chinese (just that with the simplified Chinese character set, you write 音译 instead). A transliteration or phonetic transcription, if you prefer. But yeah, it was a transliteration at first. It was 英吉利 in Japanese. Used to be 英格兰 (yīng gé lán = England) in Mandarin, but now it’s just 英国. Chinese uses one-kanji abbreviations too.

Yeah, I know the “heroic” meaning isn’t fully archaic or anything. By antiquated, I just meant the English meaning has dominated. As seen in the fact that English is the given definition here (Though, just like the original purpose of this thread, I might like to see heroic given as a synonym for 英 as much as taint for 染).

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I’m not so sure about it being dominant. I think it’s more that at the level of most people on WaniKani, we’re more likely to encounter the ‘English’ meaning than anything else (barring 英雄 appearing in an anime, of course). Again, I don’t have evidence: it’s just a hunch, since I have a feeling 英 is quite a literary kanji otherwise. Either way though, I guess additional synonyms sound like a good idea.

I think you’re reading too much into whether there’s a positive or negative connotation of 染. It’s just neutral like “to dye” is neutral in English. What matters is the intention of the speaker.

In the WK sentence, the speaker is intending 染まる to be a negative thing and that’s why you can translate it as “to taint” to make it look more natural to English speakers’ eyes.

You couldn’t do it in English because it’s an unfamiliar way of speaking, but “to dye” can be synonymous with “to taint” or “to stain” in the right context in English too.

But consider these sentence in English where taint and stain can substitute dye giving a negative vibe:

I put a red sock in with my white laundry and it dyed my other clothes.
I put a red sock in with my white laundry and it stained my other clothes.
I put a red sock in with my white laundry and it tainted my other clothes.

You probably wouldn’t say sentence 3 because it sounds a little stuffy, but by saying sentence 1 and 2 you’re always implying that the other clothes have been tainted.

As an addendum: it might be worth remembering that English and Japanese aren’t always comparable. Maybe the better translation for the WK language would have been:

“I’m worried that this bad environment will colour our children.”

That retains the base meaning of 染まる without misleading people into overthinking about why “taint” was used instead. But again, you’ll run into problems when people haven’t come across that use of “to colour”, I guess.

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