In Japanese, "gray" is literally the color of ash:
灰色 (はいいろ: gray; ashen) ash + color
Clever! I never would have thought of representing "gray" that way, but I actually can't think of a better combination!
Incidentally, the Japanese originally represented "gray hair" not with 灰 or 灰色 but with 白. In terms of both hair and the color of the sky, 白 can convey either "white" or "gray." Japanese words for hair that's no longer dark originally incorporated 白, as in this term:
斑白 (はんぱく: grayish color; grizzled hair) spots + white
However, English has influenced Japanese to the extent that グレー (gray) and シルバー (silver) now pop up as descriptions of older people's hair. For instance, seats reserved for elderly or disabled passengers used to be called シルバー・シート ("silver seats").
Furthermore, people sometimes refer to gray hair as ロマンス・グレー, which is literally "romance gray"! This term can mean not only "gray hair" but also "attractive older man with some gray hair." Women's gray hair apparently doesn't inspire romance!
With that clarified, let's return to 灰.
Anne Hill, who helps me out in countless ways, told me a story that makes me marvel at her Japanese listening comprehension. She said that when she took a ferry to Kagoshima (on the southwestern tip of Kyushu), she heard an unusual announcement:
It is ashing. Please be careful.
降灰 (こうかい: volcanic ash); 降る (ふる: to fall); 注意 (ちゅうい: caution)
Because she had recently learned 灰 and 降, she recognized them in 降灰. Impressive!
Anne says that「降灰が降っています」 must be a phrase unique to Kagoshima, where the volcano Sakurajima frequently dumps large quantities of fine ash on the city: "That day we all got off the boat, umbrellas at the ready, and I remember seeing a helmet hanging from the handlebars of a scooter on the quay, full to the brim with ash."
[Read the rest on Joy o' Kanji!]
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