What's going on with 先?

I’m totally confused by this walking contradiction of a kanji. How can it mean BOTH previous and ahead/future? How can you tell which one in context? Theoretically 先々月 could mean “two months from now” based on the future meaning but it seems to only mean “two months ago.” Is there some kind of trick to remembering when it’s used a particular way?


I found this helpful :slight_smile:


When talking about time, isn’t it pretty much always “past” or “previous” or “earlier”? I don’t see how 先々月 could mean “two months from now.”

The idea of さき on its own meaning “future” is just an analogy of the spatial meanings, I feel (i.e. “what lies ahead”). I don’t think it really ever gets used that way in compounds.


Thank you both! So if I understand correctly, it seems similar to “before” in English, where it means past/previous in terms of time but front/ahead in terms of space and position?


It’s been a while since I read that Stack Exchange thread fully, but that’s indeed how I remember it being. ^^

When I learned the vocab in a vacuum, it sounded very confusing and contradictory to me. But looking back now, I can’t readily think of a time where it was a problem when I encountered it while reading or watching stuff. Maybe it did happen and I just don’t recall, but I think context tended to make things quite clear, because it doesn’t stand out to me as a word that would trip me up much when it came to working out a sentence.


Good to hear! I was so worried I’d have to just memorize word-by-word what it meant each time. Thanks again for your help! :slight_smile:

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先 (and 前 ) mean in front/ahead of you in their spatial sense; and before you in the temporal sense.

Converseley, 後 means at your back, behind you in the spatial sense; and after in the temporal sense.

It may seem awkwards copared how it is in English, but it is actually a matter of referential (point of vue).
In English (French, Spanish, etc) the time referential is seen as static, you are static in the “present”, and the “future” is static ahead of you and the past static behind you.

But in Japanese (in Chinese too, I suppose), it works as if the time referential is about events in movement, the events are walking, the things yet to come (the future) have to reach you, they are still behind you and need to arrive at your side. Then, they will continue their journey, and eventually they will pass you, they will be in front of you.


Pour quelqu’un qui comprends le français : le passé c’est les événements qui vous ont déjà depassé, ils sont devant (前) vous. Ce qui est à venir c’est ce qui ne vous a pas encore atteint, c’est derrière (後) vous.


The analogy I prefer is when you’re running in a race, the people who are ahead of you in space will finish before you in time.



This analogy kinda broke my brain, but in a good way. It makes so much sense I almost can’t remember how this stuff was ever confusing.

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