The Language of Origami


Reiko Chiba Tuttle, circa 1960, at the American Library Association

Charles E. Tuttle was only half of the team who built Tuttle Publishing. His partner in work and life was his wife of almost 50 years, Reiko Chiba Tuttle. Known for her wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, Reiko was the warm, personal focus of Charles’ life-long passion for Japanese culture. The inspiration and deft-hand behind hundreds of Tuttle books that taught the US and the world about Japanese culture, history, language, and arts, Reiko would have celebrated her 97th birthday on January 24.

To mark the occasion, I have the pretty amazing privilege of unveiling a birthday gift to Reiko. This spring, we’re publishing a new book called Origami Butterflies, a collection of original designs by master folders, best-selling authors, and traditional paper-makers Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander of Origamido Studio. To celebrate the completion of the book and Reiko’s life, LaFosse and Alexander dedicated a unique butterfly named in Reiko’s honor.


The “Reiko” origami butterfly by Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander

A recent article in the Annals of Foreign Language, a quarterly journal of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) underscored the mnemonic power of learning a foreign language in connection with something else you have an interest in. You might know (or be), for example, someone who bombed in high school French but who, thanks to an interest in haute cuisine, uses words like bain-marie, mirepoix, and velouté like a native. To honor Reiko’s birthday and her butterfly, and in the spirit of learning words in the context of a past-time, I thought I’d review some basic origami terminology.

Origami 折り紙
The first element in the word origami comes from the verb oru (折る, fold), hence the basic polite conjugations of orimasu “fold”, orimashita “folded”, and orimashō “let’s fold”. The second element is kami (紙, paper), although here the ‘k’ is voiced and becomes ‘g’ through a process called “rendaku”. The change isn’t entirely foreign to English; think about how the ‘tt’ in “letter” sounds like ‘d’. So “origami” means “folding paper”.

As an aside, China and Korea both also have paper-folding traditions—the Chinese invented paper. The term there is also “folding paper” (zhézhǐ in pinyin), and it’s written 摺紙 in Traditional characters, where the second character is identical to the Japanese. In Simplified characters, the word is written 折纸, where the first character is identical to the Japanese, but the three dashes in the lower left-hand corner of the second character have fused into one line. A big thank-you to Janet in the UK who helped me sort this out. She contributed some very illuminating comments to this blog that I’d encourage you to read.

In Korea, one says 종이접기 (jongi jeopgi). It’s written phonetically in hangul now but in the past would have been written in Chinese characters, only in reverse: 紙摺, which is “paper folding” instead of “folding paper”. As loanwords, neither zhézhǐ nor jongi jeopgi have gotten as much traction as origami yet, but you can find websites dedicated to them. In the meantime, rather than write “Chinese origami”, it’s more common to say “Chinese paper-folding” or “Korean paper-folding”.

In origami there are two basic folds: the yama-ori (山折り, mountain fold) where the crease points up, and the tani-ori (谷折り, valley fold) where the crease points down. The second element in each word (ori) is exactly the same ori as in origami. In front of that come the everyday Japanese words for “mountain” (山, yama) and “valley” (谷, tani). These words are both extremely common in Japanese family names. You hear yama in Yamashita (below the mountain), Yamada (mountain field), and Murayama (village mountain). Readers of the NY Times will recognize tani in the name of Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani (corner valley).

My favorite fold name is the 蛇腹折り (jabara-ori), which means “snake-belly fold”. In English, alas, that’s become an “accordion fold”, which has a whiff of a pizzeria. Another fold whose meaning was twisted in English was the Japanese “cushion” fold (座布団, zabuton, or, literally a “sitting futon”). In English, that’s a “blintz”, which, even worse, is named after an Eastern European pancake that’s more often rolled than folded.

48053100463740Many origami folds start with one of four bases. If you’ve ever folded a crane, the first 5-6 steps of a crane constitute a “crane base”, from which you can complete not just the crane but many other birds or shapes. The four bases are the crane (鶴, tsuru), the iris (あやめ, ayame) or frog (蛙, kaeru), the fish (魚, sakana, remember that from two weeks ago?), and the gate (とびら, tobira).

Last, if you’ve ever heard of kirigami, that’s the art of paper cutting. It’s written 切り紙, where the first element comes from the verb kiru, to cut. (If you’re not a Japanese speaker yet, all Japanese verbs end in -u; e.g., oru, “fold”, kiru, “cut”, yomu, “read”, kau, “buy”.)

To keep with the origami theme, this week we’re raffling off a copy of the most recent best-seller by Michael and Richard, Trash Origami. In it, they show you how to “upcycle” things like used gift wrapping paper, catalogs, circulars, and other paper that would otherwise go to waste. If you’d like to win the book, click here to email me and put “Origami” or “折り紙” in the subject line. As a bonus, everyone who writes gets the folding instructions for the Reiko butterfly!


13 thoughts on “The Language of Origami

  1. Absolutely delightful! Thank you for such an inspiring post. I’m an origami fan and these books will be on my bookshelf soon. I’ve got a few Tuttle books on origami with the most gorgeous papers. Thank you.

    • Thanks for writing, Janet! Michael’s work is pretty spectacular, and he’s a very warm and helpful origami teacher and coach too. His work is part of an exhibit the Japanese American National Museum in L.A. curated called “Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami”. The show closed there last fall, but it’ll be on the road for at least a couple of years. The collection just left New Hampshire, and it’s opening in Wisconsin next week. From there it’ll be in Sacramento, Utah, Oregon, Florida, and Idaho. You can find a list of places on their website: If you like our origami papers, we’re coming out with a set of ukiyo-e print papers this year which is a pretty cool innovation for us.

      • Thank you for the information, JD. It’s a shame the wonderful show isn’t in the UK. I’m keen to try out any paper. I can’t wait to try out ukiyo-e print papers. Please keep me posted.

  2. On the Chinese word: 折紙 is also acceptable, equivalent to the Japanese term. The characters used in Mainland China and Singapore (the so-called simplified characters) are 折纸.

      • In modern Chinese, since the introduction of the simplified characters in China from the 1950s, the characters 摺紙 have been simplified as 折纸 . They are both pronounced as zhé zhǐ.

        Young people who have not learnt the Traditional script before may not recognise this character 摺 (to fold), but 紙 (paper) should be easily understood, as it looks like its modern form – 纸.

        In Chinese, if you use 摺纸 — you’re mixing both Traditional (摺) and Simplified (纸) scripts. The traditional character 紙 comes with a silk part(radical) 絲 sī. In the simplified form, silk has been simplified as 丝, therefore, as the character for paper carries the silk part (radical), in the simplified Chinese, it’s written as 纸.

      • Hi, Janet! Thanks for writing! Sorry to make a mistake. When I wrote, I was at home and relying on a publication called “Chinese Characters, A Geneaology and Dictionary”. It’s a Traditional dictionary, but it lists both 摺 and 折 as separate Trad characters, rather than as Trad and Simp versions of the same word. I do, however, see that both are pronounced zhé. Thanks for the clarification!

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  4. Dear JD,

    Please use this one instead. DIscard the previous one sent minutes ago. Found some typo. Thank you.

    We’re into a linguistic topic here. You’re right. 摺 and 折 are 2 different characters in the Traditional script.

    When China simplified the characters, some characters seem to have ‘merged’. 摺 and 折 used to be 2 different Traditional characters. When China implemented the Simplified script, 摺 became disappeared, and to mean ‘to fold’, 折 is adopted to replace 摺. Therefore, 2 characters were merged into one.

    Let me give you one more example and you’ll see my point more easily.

    麵包 — miànbāo: Traditionally, it means ‘bread’. 麵 --its radical is 麦, mài, which means wheat flour.

    However, China simplified 麵包 to 面包。面 --it is much easier to write, but the ‘wheat flour’ part has disappeared. If you look at some simplified characters today, you can no longer see their original meaning that’s embedded in the Traditional script. On its own, what does 面 mean? It originally means ‘face, surface, cover, side, superficial……’ . Because 面 is easier to write than 麵 , the character with the wheat flour (麵)has been abandoned by China in its Simplified script.

  5. Completely fascinating! So simplification made characters easier to write, but in the process they lost some of the meaning “embedded” in them. What do you think of the trade off?

    I’ve sometimes thought that, even if they’re easier to write, Simplified characters are more difficult to differentiate. Even at a glance, for example, the Traditional characters 車 and 東 look quite different to me. But I always confuse their Simplified cousins: 车 and 东. What do you think?

    But since my education was in Japanese, it’s possible I have an unconscious bias for Traditional characters. Either way, in terms of book sales, in the US and UK, Simplified characters are preferred about 2-to-1 to Traditional.

    Thanks again for writing, Janet.

    • The Traditional vs Simplified debate can sometimes be seen as political unfortunately.

      I learnt the Traditional script as a child, and was slowly switching to the Simplified form after living in the West. I totally agree with you that the Traditional characters are more recognisable and the transformation of some characters seems more logical. Some characters (Traditional-Simplified) do still keep the shape, but the essence has been lost. For example, the traditional character for love is 愛 (ài) — do you see there’s a ‘heart’ (心)in the middle there? However, when it’s simplified, it becomes 爱 -- the heart in the middle has disappeared. It’s saddening to see the loss of the essence of a meaningful character like this. In this respect, I don’t appreciate the change.

      It’s understandable why simplified characters are preferred. In the West, the trend of Mandarin teaching focuses mainly on the Simplified script, though the Traditional script is introduced to students who study Chinese at the university level.

      In calligraphy, however, most artists would still prefer the use of the Traditional script — aesthetically, it’s simply more elegant than the simpler form.

      • I agree for exactly the same reasons. I also find the historical radical index a bit easier to work with.

        To some extent, the success of Simplified is just good marketing. Newcomers to Asian languages perceive learning Chinese characters as such an uphill battle that, when they hear that they’ve got a choice between “traditional” or “simplified” characters, they leap at “simplified” without often asking the difference between the two.

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