It’s funny how translation can bring to light meanings in familiar words that you never knew were there. The last few days, I’ve been working on a document in Japanese—or, I guess “document” might be too formal a term. It’s an advertisement for a thermal blanket with different layers that are supposed to retain the heat, while being light and compact.
Not having much experience with sewing and fabrics and clothing and the like (yet another area where modern people depend on the collective achievements of humanity for the fundamentals of daily life), I came to a halt when I got to the line that described what color the blanket is:
I could read “white” and “orange”—both of these are used as-is in Japanese, phonetic transliterations of the English color words, most often (in my experience at least) used to describe the colors of non-Japanese objects, things, etc.: Howaito. Orenji.
But what was the term in the middle? Written in the katakana syllabary, which is commonly employed to represent borrowed words from English and other non-Chinese languages, “baiyasu” had an English ring to it. Bayas? Byeas? Not really knowing how to read the slash separating it from the color word orenji, I assumed baiyasu must be some kind of color word too.
But no. A quick search in the dictionary revealed the word “bias”, whose first definition in the dictionary was not the familiar “tendency toward a particular ideology or world-view”. The “bias” is, in woven fabrics, the direction at a 45-degree angle to the fibers of the cloth, the “cross-grain”. Fabrics tend to stretch more easily along the bias, Wikipedia told me, and clothing designers used this property to their advantage in designing more form-fitting clothes with the “bias-cut”.
なるほど。Although the origins of this word might not have anything to do with the more familiar (to me) meaning, the two couldn’t help but play off each other in my mind; the fabric bias suddenly becomes the source domain of a metaphor for understanding one person’s bias about, what else, other people.
Why should the bias be a different color, I wondered? Is the bias the dividing line between white and orange in this layered thermal blanket? How could it divide two colors from each other, when the fabric’s bias is just a direction that exists everywhere fibers intersect at a 90-degree angle? It shouldn’t be a visible line in itself, should it?
Somehow, though, it started to make sense. The social fabric we make together might be like the fabric we wear after all: easier to stretch, and more easily manipulable along the bias that exists in every place that two threads intersect, the place where two trajectories cross.
And somehow it’s comforting to know that anyone who wears clothes is covered in biases most of the time. I just wish they were a little easier to see.