Licking the Ceiling
Semantic Staining and Monstrous Diversity
This essay proposes a concept of “semantic staining,” whereby images and meanings bleed into other images and other meanings, indelibly altering them within the popular imagination. By exploring this process as it is expressed in the naming and description of monsters—a cultural category particularly open to interpretation—we gain broad insight into the way knowledge is ordered, transmitted, and altered through time and space. We can also examine specific historical moments in which homogenizing forces and different media change taxonomies, categorization, as well as language and culture more generally. Based on a mixture of archival and field research, the essay focuses specifically on several examples of major and minor Japanese yōkai (monsters and supernatural phenomena) and how shifts in nomenclature change the way they are imagined.
Keywords: taxonomy, yōkai, naming, folkbiology, Japan