Some of these kanji meanings are giving me headaches

Man some of these kanji meanings are confusing…

For example the kanji 先

Means: Previous, Former…

But it also means : Ahead

Like what??? How can the same kanji have 2 meanings that are basically OPPOSITES

This is so confusing sometimes…

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Think of its meaning more as “in advance”
If someone or something is in advance then they are or it is not only ahead but also former and previous.

But also, kanji were brought over from China in three tranches and each time the meanings that were brought over were different and the sounds were different, so that’s why sometimes you’ll get kanji with bizarre meanings. But for 先 I think the meanings are pretty consistent.


It just depends on your perspective. The basic concept doesn’t change, just the direction you’re looking from.

If I leave ahead of you, I leave “previous” to you.

The word “before” can similarly mean something that is behind you in the past (what happened before), or in front of you in the future (the path before us).


This happens in every language I know. New meanings get attached to older words. Just look up something like “right” or “use” in the dictionary, and imagine trying to wrap your mind around it for the first time. How can “right” mean both “correct,” “a justifiable legal claim,” and “ninety degrees”? It makes no sense on the face of it, and yet it’s a word English speakers use in normal conversation.

One of the magical things about learning another language it is gets you to look at your own in a new way. And you realize how much of our understanding is wrapped up in context.

To make it easier on yourself, though, just go with “previous” for 先. You can deal with other, more nuanced meanings later.


Dictionary says ahead is also pretty close to being it’s own antonym :sweat_smile:

It’s actually a surprisingly good gloss.

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On the road when some kinda construction is going on, 50m先 might be seen. The construction is taking place 50 metres ahead.


It’s a bit misleading when Japanese-English dictionaries take the Japanese meaning only to provide a set of English ‘equivalents’ rather than defining its meaning. However from what I understand, 先 means “to come before”, whether it be in time, position, what have you…

先に:Ahead (lit. before (you/everyone else))
先週:Last week (lit. before week)
先生:Teacher (lit. Before life) “As older generations passing knowledge to the younger generations”
指先:Fingertip (lit. before finger) “What comes before the rest of the finger? The tip”

Take this all with a grain of salt through, I wouldn’t want the blind leading the blind. I just wanted to be helpful! :smile:

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Think of a queue of customers. The previous customer that was served before you was also ahead of you in the queue.

It also works for time, the previous day comes before today on a timeline.

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