“Not just any sale, it’s a #$&@^’ sale”

« previous post | next post »

With these words, Zarina Yamaguchi presents the following photograph, taken at Osaka’s Shinsaibashi Shopping Street, on her Facebook page:

Zarina also observed: “Seriously, this only happens in Japan.” The photograph was reposted by Pat Myers on Twitter with this note: “An on-sale sign in English that you won’t see outside Japan.”

Well, I really wouldn’t have to add anything, but since this is Language Log, I’d better do my duty and make a few pertinent remarks about the use of “fuckin'” in the Land of the Rising Sun.

When asked why the Japanese would plaster such signs all over a department store, Nathan Hopson replied, “Why not? English is cool. ‘Fuckin” packs a good English wallop, but nobody’s offended.” To this, Nathan’s wife, Tomomi, added, “Fuckin’ sale, 20% off…. So what?” She had no idea why anybody would make a big deal over such a sign. With some prompting, she continued, “It’s just not really worthy of comment — except to maybe say it’s a bit crass. Certainly not the kind of thing you photograph and make a fuss about. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even notice that if I were standing there. It is a lot less conspicuous than ichiban 一番 (“number 1″) t-shirts….”

So what’s wrong with ichiban 一番 (“number 1”) t-shirts?

The first time Tomomi saw such t-shirts was in the gift shops at Narita, specifically aimed at foreign tourists. That in itself struck her as odd, since foreigners can’t read kanji. Moreover, self-promotion is frowned upon in Japanese society, so you’re not supposed to go around announcing “I’m Number One!” Thus the ichiban 一番 (“number 1”) t-shirts made quite an impression on Tomomi, far more than the “Fuckin’ Sale” signs at Shinsaibashi. The t-shirts, in fact, were downright disturbing — iwakan (違和感) (“discomfort”) — whereas the “Fuckin’ Sale” signs barely impinged upon her consciousness.

There are other possibilities to consider about the “Fuckin’ Sale” signs. First of all, it might well be the case that whoever wrote the ad may not have known the original meaning of “fuck”, but only was aware of the ubiquitousness of “fuckin'” in colloquial English in America (like tāmāde 他妈的 [“his mother’s”]) in China), such that “fuckin'” more or less = || very / incredibly + Adjective || or || terrible / incredible) + Noun ||. Even native speakers of English who habitually use this expression seldom think about the original meaning. As a matter of fact, two days ago, a very dear friend of mine wrote to me in a Skype chat session “STFU” when I was carrying on about something for too long. I didn’t even know what “STFU” meant, so I had to look it up and, being a literalist, I was hurt. (Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before.) However, talking it over with her, I found out that she meant no more than “all right already — you’ve said enough about that; please stop”.

This is but one example of how “fuck” has been desensitized to the point of functioning as a general intensifier, such that, if you are really, really upset with someone, you have to double it up, as Van Morrison did when he said “Fucking shut the fuck up!” If a Japanese person visits America without knowing much English, and they pick up the language largely by listening, it is not unlikely that they would get the impression that “fuckin'” is a cool variant of “very, tremendous, awesome, great,” etc. In fact, they may acquire “fuckin'” in these senses as a secure part of their spoken vocabulary without ever being aware of the original meaning of “fuck”. I guess a lot depends upon who they’re hanging out with!

(Parenthetically, I might add that the use of “fuckin'” in the language of hip Japanese who have visited America is paralleled by the predilection for “merde!” displayed by many Japanese youth who travel to France.)

Another aspect of the use of “fuckin'” in Japan may have to do with the magic or mystique of what Japanese refer to as katakana kotoba (words that are customarily written in the katakana syllabary, i.e., “foreign language words”. Japanese speakers are fond of such words, but they often aren’t aware of their full, literal meanings. Katakana words add a flavor of exoticism and trendiness. For many people who use them all the time, katakana words are valued primarily for their aural qualities and secondarily for semantic properties. One Japanese friend told me, “So long as it stays in katakana, it is fine because it’s a kind of ‘guest’ in our language, and we are not responsible for it. Even if we find out that the original meaning is not so nice, we still think it’s all right because they (Americans) themselves use words in different ways in English.”

There is a very curious phenomenon of transference between two of the four components of the Japanese writing system (kanji, hiragana, katakana, romaji) whereby romaji kotoba (e.g., “Fuckin’ Sale”) function in a similar fashion as katakana kotoba, with a greater emphasis on their aural qualities than their semantic properties. Some Japanese speakers have indicated to me that they often register romaji kotoba almost the same way that they are affected by katakana kotoba, except that the level of exciting exoticism and anticipated alienness is elevated even beyond what katakana kotoba convey.  Naturally, each of the four sub-scripts of the Japanese writing system has its own special visual characteristics that writers and admen may draw upon for effect as well.

This is how one Japanese friend who saw the above photograph put it: “It is embarrassing to me, but is also very interesting…. The ad was in English(!!). For some reason, English transformed into Katakana in my mind、and I didn’t even realize that.” What this friend is saying is that “Fuckin'” somehow registered asファッキン in her mind, so it felt comfortably assimilated within the Japanese language. In other words, when she saw “Fuckin’ Sale”, she didn’t think of it as English so much as part of a linguistic landscape with which she is familiar on a day-to-day basis. It was only when I raised the issue of the appropriateness of the public display of “fuckin'” that its original meaning entered her consciousness. She also conveyed to me the conviction that wearing katakana kotoba or romaji kotoba on one’s clothing is more of a fashion statement than an attempt to convey verbal significance.

As for SALE instead of sēru セール or ōyasuuri 大安売り, I see it everywhere in Japan, and I’m sure that virtually everyone understands it. I suppose that proprietors who plaster “SALE” all over their storefronts think it will bring in more customers than sēru セール or ōyasuuri 大安売り, but I leave it up to others to debate the psychological impact of romaji versus katakana versus kanji-cum-hiragana upon the minds of potential buyers.

Perhaps the last and best pronouncement on the subject is that of Kotaku (the video games-focused blog): “When All Else Fails, Write in Fucking English“.

[A tip of the hat to Mark Mandel and Ben Zimmer, and thanks to Hiroko Kimura Sherry and Ceciia Segawa Seigle]



58 Comments

  1. LDavidH said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    Something similar seems to have happened with immigrants in Sweden (at least while I still lived there): they seemed to swear a lot more than ordinary Swedes – because they didn’t have the “feel” for what is appropriate in which context, something a native Swede would be more aware of.

  2. GeorgeW said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    It is also interesting to see that g-dropping is alive in Japanese English. The writer must have been aware of the drop since there is a word-final apostrophe.

  3. Nick Lamb said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    Presumably global dominance of Arabic numerals means the percent sign comes along for the ride? Or is that noteworthy in its own right?

  4. turang said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

    Reminds me of a French mathematician who visited Bombay a few decades back. During his lectures, he used to call the symbols he would use for affine spaces, etc. on the blackboard “bastards”, having picked up his English from watching westerns.

  5. Ted O'Neill said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    Like anything else in Japan, there are textbooks to assist people attempting to master the use of fuckin’ or other forms of the word.

    http://amzn.to/marintanfdrill

    Comes with a CD to help you master all uses of the word just like a Marine.

  6. David Scrimshaw said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    My French Canadian wife tells me that her relatives in Chicoutimi Quebec think nothing of saying “c’est tout fucké” to indicate that something is messed up or broken but would never say “tabernacle” or “sacrament”.

  7. michael farris said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

    LDavidH : “Something similar seems to have happened with immigrants in Sweden (at least while I still lived there): they seemed to swear a lot more than ordinary Swedes – because they didn’t have the “feel” for what is appropriate ”

    Oh, really? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0150662/

  8. Michael Watts said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

    The ichiban shirt is a little surprising to me just because of the typesetting. I thought characters were supposed to be centered in uniform squares — shouldn’t there be a lot of vertical space between the 一 and the 番?

  9. Marc Naimark said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    When I first arrived in France I was taken aback by posters for the film “Fucking Fernand”.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093057/

    I really can’t think of a French insult that packs the force of “fuck”. But they love saying it. Go figure.

  10. Willie said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

    This “fucking” phenomenon isn’t limited to the far east, as I discovered this summer on a short trip to Berlin, where I was pleased to see this banner waving in the wind:

    http://goo.gl/jNRZ0

    I presume that Berliners generally have a sharper awareness than the Japanese of the full connotations of “fucking”, but nonetheless the word is still happily divorced from any sort of cultural taboos that would tell against such a sign.

  11. Janice Byer said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

    An Iraqi boy, fictionally portrayed in “The Hurt Locker”, speaks in a patois of Anglo-American cuss and slang that suggests he learned English from the pirated DVDs he sells to coalition soldiers. It’s jarring to hear a child talk to men the way men talk to each other in action flicks.

  12. bfwebster said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    I had sort of the reverse experience while doing missionary work in Central America. Jim Thomas (my missionary companion) and I had picked up the term “jodido” (as in “¡Animal jodido!”) during the few months we worked together in Nicaragua. It was only after I got back to the States that I discovered its actual meaning and blushed in retrospect.

  13. David Forthoffer said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

    Many years ago, I worked in a Japanese-managed company in San Jose, California. During an ordinary business meeting, the big boss used “fucking” in an ordinary conversation, without any inflection, in a context that made me think he meant “very”. I don’t think he realized the impact it had on us Americans…

  14. Wells Hansen said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

    I am not surprised that your friend typed “STFU” without intending the words that the initialism originally represented. On several occasions I have heard persons who were using such initialisms contextually appropriately “confess” that they did not know what, if anything, the letters represented. It seems that users learn about these signs as they do other signs that they see, read, or hear. And the meanings of these symbols evolve as do those of other words and signs –without necessary reference to their origin. LL FTW!

  15. JELink said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

    I lived in Kyoto waaaay back in the 1970’s, and to this day I remember a bent-over obaasan (old lady) in traditional house clothes shuffling along Sanjo clutching a shopping bag urging, “Fuck the NebStar Babies While You Can!”

    I didn’t know who the NebStar Babies were, but I got the message, a variant of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”. I suspect the old lady was clueless.

  16. Jim Lippard said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

    The last photo obviously depicts a fan of the Dead Kennedys.

  17. Catpawn said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

    I was rolling on the floor laughing reading this, probably just as much because it would seem rather natural for me that such difference exist and because I kept thinking about the eulogy of the F word done by John Cleese many years (warning: explicit language…about the most versatile word of the English language).

    http://www.zimbio.com/Monty+Python/articles/74/Funny+Monty+Python+Video+History+Word+Fuck

  18. Keith M Ellis said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

    David Scrimshaw, your wife has probably explained this, but an interesting thing about taboo words is that they are very culturally determined. In a number of deeply Catholic cultures, including Quebec, words related to reproduction and excretion are relatively less taboo and profanity (in the technical, religious sense) is relatively more taboo. So, as you say, in Québécois tabarnac packs a much stronger punch than, say, merde.

    And speaking of merde and cross-cultural appropriations of taboo words where they function differently, I’ve seen a photograph of a personalized license plate issued here in New Mexico (USA) that says simply MERDE.

  19. Nathan Myers said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

    MERDE would be disallowed on a California license plate, but my aunt got a plate with “FUMET”.

    I saw a book complaining about Japanese culture, where the main exhibit was an ad for a toy robot named “JESUS GOD”. This book (from the ’80s) also asserted that almost all privately owned cars in Japan were white.

    My all-time favorite Japanese t-shirt spotting was “After golf, bath a mustard”. Second was Lucy van Pelt saying “Hey! Look behind!”

  20. Sammy Finkelman said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

    To understand this, you have to understand that:

    1) a word has been dropped – the word BIG.

    It is short for” Big F* sale.” The sign maker decided to use what seemed to be the more specific, picituresque word.

    2) Japanese don’t truly know what the word f* means any more. That might actually be said for people speaking English.

    In this case the meaning of F* in the phrase “Big F* something” – most usually in the phrase “Big F* Deal” has been reinterpreted, which is actually how words change their meaning.

    If “”Big F* Deal” is the root cause of the sign, the person whose native language is Japanese didn”t understand that F/ was meant to undermine the idea that something was a “Big deal”

  21. Gene said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

    Dublin has to take the prize for the use of “Fookin”.
    Every public wall echoes the word.
    On a local bus to Dublin my driver stopped to have a conversation with another Bus driver as they blocked the narrow street both ways, I heard “Fook” used as a noun,verb,adverb,adjective and even a pronoun. In fact the only other words I heard were Proper names and prepositions.
    But the line I’ll always remember was from my host’s 80 year old aunt. She still worked everyday arranging funerals at her church. In her piety she had refused to allow my host, Ivan to spend the night in her home because he wasn’t married to his girlfriend. “You are living in sin Ivan, I’ll not have your whore in my fookin house”.

  22. Peter Gerdes said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

    I think what accounts for the difference isn’t so much a difference in the way most consumers process fuckin in japan but the absence of a small segment of the population who are hideously offended and roused to action by the use of the word

    While I would appreciate it as risque I wouldn’t think anything of going to a store with such a sign and I suspect that a substantial segment of my peers (other college educated people <= 30 raised in the USA) if not a majority would feel similarly.

    However, in the US there is still a substantial reserve of people (often older but not necessarily) who not only find the word distasteful but so offensive that they would raise a stink, start boycotts and the like. That bad PR (and potential retaliation by malls, TV stations etc..) is enough to dissuade even those retailers who are selling only to the kind of demographic who doesn’t mind words like fuckin.

  23. rmd said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 1:24 am

    Seriously, this only happens in Japan.

    I did once see displayed in an upmarket German department store, in front of the relationships section, a great stack of copies of (approx.) “Fuck and Go: Love the American Way”.

  24. George said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 2:28 am

    Here are a number of pretty random reactions to the sign and the comments:

    1) The ‘problem’ isn’t just one of inappropriate register; it’s that the sign makes very little sense in any English register, as Sammy Finkelman points out, without an adjective for fuckin’ to intensify.

    2) In France (I don’t know about elsewhere in the francophone world), ‘merde’ packs about as much punch as ‘damn’ would in English. In other words, very little. I can, on the other hand (unlike Marc Naimark) think of a few French insults that pack the force of ‘fuck off’ (‘fuck’ on its own isn’t really an insult), generally following the ‘va te faire …’ pattern.

    3) I love Nathan Myers’ “After golf, bath a mustard” t-shirt. Never been to Japan but it brings back wonderful memories of the late ’80s, the heyday in France of the let’s-stick-a-few-random-English-words-together slogan (on jackets rather than t-shirts most of the time). The disappearance of the genre is a testament to the work of countless EFL teachers (as I was myself at the time).

    4) To pronounce Dublin ‘fookin’, think ‘foot’, not ‘food’.

    5) Peter Gerdes’ comment makes me wonder whether the British clothing chain French Connection (arguably a drug reference already) uses the FCUK brand widely in the US. It no longer raises an eyebrow on this side of the Atlantic.

  25. Peter Taylor said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 2:47 am

    I don’t disagree with the basic premise of

    If a Japanese person visits America without knowing much English, and they pick up the language largely by listening, it is not unlikely that they would get the impression that “fuckin'” is a cool variant of “very, tremendous, awesome, great,” etc. In fact, they may acquire “fuckin'” in these senses as a secure part of their spoken vocabulary without ever being aware of the original meaning of “fuck”.

    But I think that such a person would be quite unusual, especially if a teenager. My experience in a boarding school with many foreign pupils was that the first words they wanted to learn were swearwords. And as evidence that this approach to language learning isn’t confined to one English boarding school, when I took a refresher course in Spanish, after a couple of weeks our teacher commented how unusual it was that we hadn’t asked for a lesson on swearwords, and proceeded to give us one anyway.

  26. Chris Waugh said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 3:34 am

    LDavidH: At university one of my French lecturers explained it this way to the class: “We’re going to teach you these swear words and what they mean because we want you to understand them so that when you hear them used live, in the wild, you understand the situation and know what’s going on. But we don’t want you to use these words, at least not until you’ve been living in France for a gazillion years, because all the cultural nuances of when and where it is appropriate to swear and which words are mild and which are not are exceedingly difficult for a second language learner to fully grasp. So learn these words, understand them, but hold off using them until you’ve got a firm grasp on all the cultural nuances.” Perhaps my Dr Dineen should’ve been let loose on your immigrants to Sweden?

    Speaking of Sweden, one of the first Norwegian phrases I ever learned was a term of abuse for Swedes. I happened to be in a car full of Norwegians smack in the middle of Sweden at the time. I suggested perhaps it might not be a good idea to repeat that phrase until we’d crossed into Norway, and they agreed.

    As it turns out, I’ve never been to any French speaking territory, but my tongue could easily get me in hot water here in China. Better be careful, I’m not much of street brawling type.

    I deal with my own students’ attempts to swear by correcting their grammar. I mean, if they’re going to swear, they might as well do it properly, right?

  27. Chris Waugh said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 3:44 am

    @George: “1) The ‘problem’ isn’t just one of inappropriate register; it’s that the sign makes very little sense in any English register, as Sammy Finkelman points out, without an adjective for fuckin’ to intensify.”

    I dunno. Imagine:
    A: “What is this?”
    B: “It’s a fuckin’ sale, man, can’t you read the fuckin’ sign? It’s a fuckin’ _sale_!”

    Makes sense to me.

  28. LDavidH said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 3:55 am

    @Michael Farris: The Swedish film “Show Me Love”, Swedish title “F***ing Åmål” (‘Åmål’ is a town) is an example of Swedes using English swear words. I was referring to immigrants using Swedish swear words, having picked them up from their neighbours and colleagues but not realising just what they mean, more like the Japanese use of f* in this sign. The use of f* by the Swedes in the film was probably more deliberate!

  29. LDavidH said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 3:56 am

    @Chris Waugh: Yes, he most definitely should have been!

  30. George said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    @Chris Waugh. Point taken re fuckin’ without an adjective. I feel like a fuckin’ idiot now.

  31. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    @Chris Waugh, Michael Farris: I’d like to see some hard data on the overuse of swearwords by immigrants to Sweden. I have only anecdotal evidence to report, but I haven’t noticed any of the sort; the only really frequent Swedish swearword seems to be ‘skit’, which, when used as a modifier, has completely lost its taboo nature and is broadly equivalent to ‘jätte’.

  32. eye5600 said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    I’m not a linguist at all. I’ve always assumed that every language has forbidden words because they are required by some deep quirk of brain processing. And, I’ve pondered the lessening impact and greater acceptance of the usual swear words in America. (Apparently, the Supreme Court is hearing a case about swear words on TV.)

    All of which leads me to wonder what will happen when there are not swear words left, and the mechanism by which some new word could take on forbidden status.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 10:34 am

    From Bob Ramsey:

    I know you’ve seen that old engrish.com website; those kinds of pics of tee shirts with crazy English printed on them are commonly posted there. But I admit I hadn’t seen a public sign quite like this one, where a shopping street displays something the Japanese clearly must know is offensive and shocking, at least in print. And what’s doubly interesting to me is that–unless I don’t know Korea as well as I think I do–you just wouldn’t find such a thing in that country. A shocking sign like the one you posted would be reported on in the papers in Korea!

    Years ago, way back in 1978, Herb Passin, who was then an anthro professor at Columbia, published a little popular book about such things in Japan. As he pointed out then, it’s perfectly acceptable in polite Japanese conversation to use the English word “fuck” as a euphemism. One of his bigger claims was that the Japanese strangely enough don’t have any real vocabulary for cussing in their culture. They sure don’t have much of anything blasphemous, he said, or about mothers really (as the Chinese do), while, in contrast, in Korea you can hear workmen cussing with native words for “fuckin'” and “son of a bitch” all the time—just as we do here in America. Passin claimed the Japanese laughably make do with such pale substitutes as bakayaro! ‘fool’ or chikusho! ‘beast’. Amusing little book, though I don’t know how far I’d believe it (even though Passin knew Japanese amazingly well), and, of course, I never hung out much with yakuza or the like in Japan…

  34. Terry Collmann said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    T-shirt English – the use of frequently random and sometimes misspelt English words on T-shirts worn by people who do not themselves have any real grasp of the language but believe the words on their T-shirts add sophistication – is thriving among the immigrant population of Abu Dhabi, but I see it less often in Hong Kong, where more people speak good English.

  35. Boris said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    As proof that people don’t think about the original meaning of the word:
    http://xkcd.com/90/

  36. Mark Mandel said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    @Michael Farris
    I sent the link of this post to my Swedish penpal. He wrote back:

    “I remember when they were advertising “Fucking Åmål” in the Underground, the ad containing the titular quote in full: “Varför måste vi bo i fucking jävla kuk-Åmål?”  [Why do we have to live in fucking bloody dick Åmål?]     and somebody had decided that “kuk” really wouldn’t do in a public place like that, so it was pasted over on all the ads…”

    I answered:

    “Well, of course! “Kuk” is Swedish (cognate to “cock”?) and very intense to a Swede, ja? Whereas “fucking” is English, something you pick up growing up or grown-up, and even if your English is fluent it’s unlikely to get you in the gut the way the tabu words you were slapped for saying as a kid (or whatever) do. Is so?”

  37. Mark Mandel said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Follow-up from Swedish penpal:
    > Well, of course! “Kuk” is Swedish (cognate to “cock”?) and very intense to a Swede, ja?

    Ja och ja.

    > Whereas “fucking” is English, something you pick up growing up or grown-up, and even if your English is fluent it’s unlikely to get you in the gut the way the tabu words you were slapped for saying as a kid (or whatever) do. Is so?

    Exactly.

    > Forwarding your comment as a comment on the post.

    Fersure.

  38. Martha said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    Sorry, I don’t know how to do quotes, but:
    @Chris Waugh. Point taken re fuckin’ without an adjective. I feel like a fuckin’ idiot now.

    The thing about fuckin’ without an adjective (which I guess is fuckin’ as an adjective) is that I can’t think of an example of using it like that that is positive. “I feel like a fuckin’ idiot” or “I lost my fuckin’ job” sounds better to me than “I got a fuckin’ puppy” or “I won the fuckin’ lottery” to me. (Although maybe the last one is okay.”

    So when I see “fuckin’ sale,” it makes it seem like, an annoyed “We’re having a fuckin’ sale. Take your shit and leave.”

    Maybe it’s because I work in retail.

  39. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    Chris Waugh. If the sign had said “It’s a fuckin’ sale!” it wouldn’t strike me as subtly grammatically wrong. The shortened phrase “fuckin’ sale” does strike me as written by someone who doesn’t quite get the language.

    My son from Romania went through junior high, high school, tech school, and the USMC here. His speech and even his FB writing uses “fuck” frequently, and I am sure he has very little connection in his mind with the word’s origins.

    Uh, Peter Gerdes, the chronological snobbery you exhibit, being proud of yourself for being so advanced as to not be offended by the word because of your youth – a virtue you worked so hard to achieve – is unbecoming. The native language I grew up with marked the word as deeply offensive, used only by rough men in rough situations. English has changed and will continue to, and that’s fine. I get that the word does not sound the same to me as to others. (See also “fart,” once considered much more inelegant than it is now.) Making love/making out rather reversed in meaning between my parents’ generation and mine. I don’t recall giving myself any moral credit for that.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    From Nathan Hopson:

    (Dubious) follow-up article discussing “origins” of “fucking” in
    Japanese advertising:
    http://gawker.com/5874804/how-a-foul+mouthed-american-chef-brought-fuckin-to-japan

  41. Janice Byer said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    Since the boomers were babies, the Anglosphere has undergone what seems like a Great Taboo Shift…or is that just my undergoing a recency illusion? Remember when women weren’t “women” but, out of respect (!) “girls” or “ladies” or even “men”? We had busts not breasts and might be expecting but never pregnant in mixed company, ironically.

  42. Rod Johnson said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

    eye5600 said: “I’ve always assumed that every language has forbidden words because they are required by some deep quirk of brain processing.”

    I’m curious about that in connection with Tourette’s Syndrome. I know that actual coprolalia isn’t as common with Tourette’s as used to be thought, but still, it does seem like certain expressions have some kind of special neurological status. What do non-English-speaking Touretters say?

  43. Yokanise said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

    Good example of Japanese English, or “Janglish” for short (known as “wasei eigo” in Japanese). Lotsa good examples of this at engrish.com, as mentioned by someone here. Got a kick outta the fol.: “That in itself struck her as odd, since foreigners can’t read kanji.” since there are many thousands of foreigners that can read kanji, incl. myself. I’ve got an ichi-ban T-shirt myself, but have never worn it in Japan. I’ve also got one with the kanji for “kuso” (= “shit”), which I haven’t worn there either. Reminds me of one I saw in a dept. store in Houston, TX. It said “Tu eres un pendejo” on the front & then below that it gave the putative English translation as something like “I really like Mexicans” or such. Hilarious!

  44. EndlessWaves said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

    @eye5600

    There will always be words with unpleasant connotations, whether it’s sexual acts that people find unpleasant (e.g. bugger) or places where pain happens (e.g. Hell) so as new things come into being or new words are coined to replace old ones grown too general there’ll be a constant stream of new potential swear words.

    I can think of a couple of unpleasant metaphors I’ve heard that could easily drop out of context and become swear words.

  45. Bob Violence said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 1:06 am

    The thing about fuckin’ without an adjective (which I guess is fuckin’ as an adjective) is that I can’t think of an example of using it like that that is positive.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-WoRcYfP1Y

  46. Shagbark Hickory said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    ‘I get that the word does not sound the same to me as to others. (See also “fart,” once considered much more inelegant than it is now’
    different cultures have different emphasis. the website http://www.h2g2.com had a profanity filter that would remove posts containing FUCK but allowed fart.
    I would be much more offended to be called an old fart, than to be called an old fuck.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

    From a Chinese friend (female) who grew up in India, Hong Kong, and Singapore:

    My brothers learned “fuck you” from comics when they were children, and said it quite a bit, and I picked it up from them. We didn’t know what it meant. I thought it had no meaning, something like “Crikes!” I didn’t till I was in my 20s.

  48. TB said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

    I love the Japanese predilection for abbreviations, whereby Starbucks (スターバックス) becomes スタバ, to pick one of innumerable examples. And I was always amused that First Kitchen, a fast-food chain, is shortened to ファッキン。Pure coincidence, but funny. I understand the company is aware of the “problem”, if you want to call it that, and prefer people to refer to it as FK instead.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    From Nathan Hopson:

    Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted…
    http://gawker.com/5875479/mortified-japanese-department-store-cleans-up-fuckin-sale

  50. Anthony said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    Maybe they could sell the signs to Hot Topic. Unless, pace Peter Gerdes above, Hot Topic would get in trouble with its landlords or others.

  51. Rhodent said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    @eye5600:

    I’m not sure what you mean by there being no swear words left. We don’t seem to be losing any. A lot of swear words might not pack the punch they once did, but they are still swear words. Even words like “damn” and “hell” are strong enough that there are contexts where they would be considered too strong. (“Darn” and “heck” don’t fall into this category, but I’m not certain they ever did.)

    As for new words taking on forbidden status, I can think of two examples that might point in that direction. First, ethnic slurs are much less acceptable today than they used to be. When I was a child, I heard a lot of older people use words such as “nigger” in public without feeling the need to keep their voices down unless a black person was nearby. Today, on those rare occasions that I hear it at all, the person saying it lowers their voice to keep pretty much anyone but me hearing it.

    Second, I discovered a few years ago that my niece has had it drilled into her at school that the word “stupid” is completely unacceptable (probably the teacher intended the students to never use it to refer to people, but given what I had just said to prompt the rebuke from my niece, clearly my niece was generalizing it to mean the word was unacceptable in any context). I doubt that stupid will ever truly become a swear word (although it often gets used in ways similar to “damn”, e.g., “Is that stupid light ever going to turn green?”), but it does point to a way words could become profanities. At one time, sex and bodily functions were taboo subjects for polite conversation, and thus words related to those topics were swear words. If stupidity becomes a similarly taboo subject, words related to stupidity could become full-fledged swear words as well.

    [(myl) See “The S-word and the F-word“, 6/12/2004; especially this quote (Matthew 5:22):

    “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘ You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

    ]

  52. Dakota said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    From the Gawker link:

    Apparently fuckin is an unfortunate pun on fukubukuro—”lucky bags.” It’s a New Years tradition for Japanese retailers to put their overstock from last year into big grab bags and sell them at a discount.

  53. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    @Dakota

    I asked Nathan Hopson whether he believed this fukubukuro explanation and he replied, “No. Nor do Japanese netizens, from what I gather. My gut instinct (nothing more) says it’s probably something along the lines of a convenient coverup at best.”

  54. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    From an anonymous Japanese friend:

    I agree with some of the things that are suggested in your original post. For example, I agree with the statement: “This is but one example of how ‘fuck’ has been desensitized to the point of functioning as a general intensifier, such that, if you are really, really upset with someone, you have to double it up, as Van Morrison did when he said ‘Fucking shut the fuck up!’ If a Japanese person visits America without knowing much English, and they pick up the language largely by listening, it is not unlikely that they would get the impression that ‘fuckin” is a cool variant of ‘very, tremendous, awesome, great,’ etc. In fact, they may acquire ‘fuckin” in these senses as a secure part of their spoken vocabulary without ever being aware of the original meaning of ‘fuck’. I guess a lot depends upon whom they’re hanging out with!”

    But I don’t agree with the statement: “So long as it stays in katakana, it is fine because it’s a kind of ‘guest’ in our language, and we are not responsible for it. Even if we find out that the original meaning is not so nice, we still think it’s all right because they (Americans) themselves use words in different ways in English.”

    The statement “She also conveyed to me the conviction that wearing katakana kotoba or romaji kotoba on one’s clothing is more of a fashion statement than an attempt to convey verbal significance” is true and understandable to a certain extent, but it doesn’t apply in everyone’s case. In the 21st century, there is no longer such a clear distinction between katakana kotoba or romaji kotoba. In some people’s cases it could be a fashion statement, but for most urbanites, whether something is in katakana or in romaji doesn’t make much difference.

    What surprised me was Nathan’s wife Tomomi’s objection to the Ichiban shirt.
    In my case, ” Fuckin’ sale, 20% off” makes me wince. But I don’t feel any iwakan 違和感 with “ichiban 一番 (‘number 1’) t-shirts”.

    I guess all these perceptions and judgments depend on individual experience and environment. It is true that the Japanese are not supposed to brag about oneself, and I used to feel that way under my mother’s influence. But I have read enough examples of braggarts of the Edo period that I don’t think anything of it any more. During the 18th century, this word ichiban 一番 was expressed by the word “Nippon 日本” instead of Nippon-ichi (best or first in Japan). Any good situation, a happy situation, good deals were said to be “Nipponda! 日本だ,” in cases like “I’m the best” (俺は日本だ)” That’s sort of similar to 一番.

    Of course “ichiban 一番 (‘number 1’) t-shirts” doesn’t offer any iwakan 違和感 in an American environment either. We are used to it, because being positive and forward is considered virtuous.

  55. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

    From Miki Morita (@Dakota):

    Is your question about “Fuckin” as “fukubukuro”? If so, do not believe so. I have never seen it used in that way around me. I assume the article associated this case with fukubukuro because later the store changed the advertisement to the one about fukubukuro with the phrase “Fxxkin Paaack” (http://gawker.com/5875479/mortified-japanese-department-store-cleans-up-fuckin-sale). Or, somebody working at the store actually picked up this word for this particular reason. However, these two words are usually not associated with each other at all.

  56. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

    More from Miki Morita:

    The sound similar to “fuckin” seems to be associated with First Kitchen, one of Japanese fast-food companies.
    ファーストキッチン→ファッキン [VHM: identical to the katakana trancription for “fuckin'”]. This expression seems to be used especially by young people, possibly originating in Osaka region (not really sure about this part). But I’m sure the tone/pronunciation of the word is totally different from “fuckin” (especially when it originates in Osaka.). When you google “ファッキン”, the link placed at the top is First Kitchen’s.

    Example:
    ファッキン
    [ふぁっきん], fakkin] Abbreviation for a restaurant called “First Kitchen” (When I had a girl tell me(in english)”Let’s go to fakkin”, I heard “let’s go fucking”, Needless to say some good ole hilarity ensued.
    http://nihonglish.tumblr.com/post/12882371641/some-slang-not-all-dirty-p

  57. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

    No native speaker of Japanese that I have consulted has ever heard of a correlation between “fuckin'” and “fukubukuro”, so this seems to be an ad hoc invention of Gawker’s informants. Perhaps it is simply a lame invention on the part of the shopowners to minimize their embarrassment.

  58. morgana said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 11:31 pm

    regarding the ‘fuck the nebstar babies while you can’ comment; i lived in kyoto in the early 70’s and OWNED one of those plastic shopping bags. when i finally deciphered the gothic script, and realised just what it said, i went out of my way to find one.
    long gone, but it was a loong time ago.

    japlish is a medium of ‘cool’, of nuance. accuracy is unimportant; it is a mood-setter. the real communication is that it APPEARS to be english.

    japlish could be produced by a crazed native english speaker who works as a copywiter signaling his distress…someone who lived in japan way too long.

RSS feed for comments on this post