The paucity of curse words in Japanese

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In "Ichiro Suzuki Uncensored, en Español:  Between the Lines, Japanese Star Is Known as a First-Class Spanish Trash Talker", via Andy Cheung, the Yankees outfielder is quoted thus:  "…we don't really have curse words in Japanese, so I like the fact that the Western languages allow me to say things that I otherwise can't."

What?  A language with no swear words?

I'm not one of those folks who makes a specialty of mastering the foul vocabulary of languages I learn, but willy-nilly I generally pick some up just by virtue of keeping my ears open.

China has its traditional "national swear word" (guómà 国骂) — "his mother's" (他妈的) — and the newer, but equally ubiquitous, niúbī 牛逼 ("awesome" < "cow cunt"), plus whole books full of other colorful expletives.

The worst pejorative I know of in Japanese is baka ("fool; idiot; stupid"), which has a long history going back to at least the 14th century.  I seem to recall that if you want to make baka sound really bad you can extend it as bakayarō.

Other Japanese "swear words", if that is what you'd call them, have to do with crepitation (breaking wind) and excrement.  For example, you can call someone a hekoki 屁こき ("farter"), but that cannot begin to compare with one of my favorite Chinese put-downs, gǒupì 狗屁 ("dog fart"), which you use when you want to disparage someone else's words.  Overall, the inventory of Japanese swear words is both lame and tame when compared to that of other languages with which I am familiar.

Perhaps yakuza (gangsters) and other underworld types have some special, secret swear words that are unknown to the general public, but one thing that seems to be completely taboo in Japan is to make unseemly references to another person's mother, especially to her anatomy.



72 Comments

  1. A-gu said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 8:13 pm

    I think the worst Japanese swear word is "your mother's belly button."

  2. Chris said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 8:44 pm

    Wait, "crepitation" is a real word? I always thought they just made it up for this.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 8:45 pm

    Here's a great paper by Michael Carr on the comparative semantics of Japanese baka and English fool:

    http://barrel.ih.otaru-uc.ac.jp/bitstream/10252/2038/1/RLA_63_1-18.pdf

  4. Charles said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

    Off the top of my head, a couple of taboo words are 雑犬 (zakken) "mongrel, half-breed" (e.g., "zakken na yo!") and 真婿 (manko) "vagina". There's a somewhat dated but still abundant source of colorful language is Peter Constantine's "Japanese Street Slang". It covers language about sex, drugs, and the yakuza. I believe that the term 隠語 (ingo) "secret language, jargon, cant" is used when talking about language common to yakuza, which I believe often involved simply reversing a word (syllable by syllable of course).

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 9:55 pm

    Capacity for swearing does seem to vary a lot between languages. Years ago on holiday in Denmark I came across some rude graffiti in a public toilet, in English. My host explained that if you want to use really foul language in Denmark then you have to do it in English: Danish just hasn't got the words.

  6. fs said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

    Charles: ざけんなよ is a slurred version of ふざけるなよ, which can be broken down as ふざける (to screw around) な (negative imperative) よ (emphatic particle).

    雑犬 is a rather rare word (note that the top three google hits for it are dictionary entries, always a bad sign) and is unrelated. It's also not "taboo" in any way, nor is ざけんなよ.

  7. a.g. said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 10:25 pm

    18 years ago (!), I was a high school exchange student in Japan, at a school that was over 90% female. I picked up the word "mukatsuku" from my peers and used it once around my host parents, who were shocked and told me, "Girls don't use language like that!" (Where did they think I learned it?) I really didn't know it was considered bad language; the dictionary I used defined it as "disgusting." My host father opined that if young people knew what it *really* meant, they wouldn't use such a word. (I still don't know what it *really* means.)

  8. John Chew said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 11:03 pm

    One reason that people swear in English is to try to get their interlocutor angry. English needs specific words for doing this, because English is so crippled in its expression of politeness that it doesn't even have a distinction between tu and vous, let alone the dozen or so ways Japanese has of saying "you" with varying degrees of respect.

  9. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 12:10 am

    According to John Solt's article "Japanese Sexual Maledicta" (Maledicta VI [1982], p. 78), the following expression is most frequently uttered by cuckolded men: Omanko ni buta no ashi o tsukkonde okuba gata-gata iwasete yaru! – "I'll stick a pig's leg up your cunt until your back-teeth rattle!" Sumimasen!

  10. mcur said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 12:19 am

    I think a.g.'s point about 'non feminine' language is relevant; there are a lot of phrases that I can use in Japanese that my girlfriend can't (without turning heads). 'Mukatsuku' ('that pisses me off') isn't necessarily one of these, but 'kurasu zo' (Fukuoka dialect, 'I'll smack you') or '~te yagaru' '~te yaru' (disrespectful verb endings) certainly are.

    Another thing about Japanese is you can shock people just by being very direct. Probably the most horrified glance I ever got was when I called a colleague 'itatsuki no baka' ('an incorrigible imbecile') behind his back. Had I been in a polite mood I would have said he was a 'nigate na taipu' ('a type of person I have no affinity for'), which is obviously much softer and puts the emphasis on my own inability to get along with him.

  11. PeterL said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 12:52 am

    Israelis have told me that Arabic provides the swear-words that Hebrew lacks.

    I once watched a Japanese movie with English subtitles that were much "earthier" than what was being spoken, which was fairly standard polite Japanese. Eventually I figured out that the movie had been first translated into Cantonese, then (fairly directly, I presume) into English. This seems to fit the aphorism that "Cantonese is essentially what everyone else in China calls swearing".

    In children's cartoons on TV, I've heard words like "shit!" (kuso) and "boobs" (oppai). Or the expletive 畜生 (chikushō), many of whose translations wouldn't get onto American TV for children (the origin of the word apparently is the Buddhist technical word for "beasts")

  12. Jeroen Mostert said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 1:45 am

    @Eric P: it's exactly the opposite in Dutch. Swearing in English is common, but also far milder than using Dutch swear words. The Dutch repertoire makes liberal use of almost every pattern of swearing there is: excrement, sex, genitals, religion, and our specialty, the names of horrible diseases (most notably cancer and tuberculosis). Notably missing from this list are familial insults — disparaging your target's descent or family is not a common Dutch tactic, and words that do so tend to be loaned.

  13. Brad said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 1:46 am

    On the one side of things, it was weird being in Japan as an exchange student and seeing the word ma_ko censored in graffiti. And, there seemed to be plenty of ways to curse involving excrement, or by being deliberately impolite or informal to someone.

    On the other side of things, if you want to "curse like a sailor" I think it boils down to what sort of reputations or elaborate constructs have been passed around for various languages. So probably swearing in a foreign language is just going to be better (and more complicated, and more impressive) than swearing in your native tongue. :^)

  14. samklai said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 2:13 am

    Overall, the inventory of Japanese swear words is both lame and tame when compared to that of other languages with which I am familiar.

    Profanity just doesn't translate. For instance, a rather strong swear word in Finnish is "jumalauta", which when glossed into English becomes "god help (me/us/you/etc)" – which wouldn't be swearing at all. So just listing swear words of language X with their English glosses doesn't really tell you much anything about their nuances. Especially when the glosses are slightly bowdlerized, like in the list here, linked to above.

    Not that there's not a distinct lack of dog farts and cow cunts in Japanese profanity in general, but on the other hand, in none of the other languages I know can you insult someone – quite seriously, too – depending on which pronoun you choose to say 'you'.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 4:23 am

    hekoki 屁こき ("farter") […] gǒupì 狗屁

    …Wait. Did they borrow not just the character, but the actual word for "fart"?!?

    Notably missing from this list are familial insults — disparaging your target's descent or family is not a common Dutch tactic, and words that do so tend to be loaned.

    Maybe your democratic tradition is just too long for that. :-) On the other hand, I'm told there are places in the US where "bastard" is still a serious insult for religious reasons.

  16. Andrew said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 4:32 am

    As a foreigner, the worst word I know in Japanese is kuso (糞 = shit, crap), which has similar shades of meaning as in English (an interjection of surprised disappointment, or someone or something that's useless), but wiktionary points out it's mild enough that a five-year-old can use it.

  17. TonyK said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 5:08 am

    "Crepitation" doesn't mean "breaking wind", does it? That sounds like a cross between a euphemism and a malapropism to me. Is there a word for that?

  18. Jeff said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 5:25 am

    珍カス (chinkasu – smegma/dick cheese), フニャチン (funyachin – limp dick), 失せろ (usero – fuck off)

    Step yo game up.

    But yeah, I actually agree with Ichiro on this to an extent; I think "cursing" in Japanese is much less present at the lexical level and more grammatical. Using -てやがれ or sarcastic keigo is way more insulting.

  19. GeorgeW said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 5:50 am

    So, what does a Japanese person say when they hit their finger with a hammer?

  20. Ø said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 5:55 am

    from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

    crepitate:

    To crackle; snap with a sharp, abrupt, and rapidly repeated sound, as salt in fire or during calcination.
    Specifically To rattle or crackle; use the crepitaculum, as a rattlesnake.
    In entomology, to eject suddenly from the anus, with a slight noise, a volatile fluid having somewhat the appearance of smoke and a strong pungent odor, as certain bombardier-beetles of the genus Brachinus and its allies.

  21. richardelguru said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 6:18 am

    "…si quis eam tetigit, tunica crepuit."??

  22. Carol Greenburg said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 6:48 am

    When hitting one's finger with a hammer, "Itai' is the most common expletive. It means ouch, or more literally translated "It hurts!"

  23. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 7:25 am

    Does mukatsuku really mean "piss off"? And what exactly does "piss off" mean, other than "make angry"? I myself am not sure I understand *why* "piss off" means "make angry". Anyway, I'm a bit dubious that "piss off" is a good / accurate translation for mukatsuku.

    Google Translate gives the following for mukatsuku: "queasy; nauseous; feel sick / irritated / offended".

    Kenkyusha's New School Japanese-English Dictionary directs me to mukamuka, where I find the following definitions: "feel sick; be sick at the stomach; be nauseated / disgusted; feel / be vexed (at); get angry".

    Although these are all expressions of discomfort and displeasure, none of them would qualify as a swear word in English. Is there some other deeper, basic, hidden, offensive meaning of mukatsuku that I'm missing?

  24. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 7:46 am

    @Jeff

    Does usero 失せろ really mean "fuck off"? Or does it just mean "get lost".

  25. Vanya said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 7:49 am

    " I myself am not sure I understand *why* "piss off" means "make angry"."

    Now that you mention it, that is a good question. "Piss off!" in the sense of "go away!" makes intuitive sense to me, but I agree it is hard to see an obvious semantic connection between urination and anger.

  26. Andrew Bay said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    Try this one:
    It is better to be pissed off than to be pissed on.

  27. Jeff said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    @Victor Mair

    Fair point, it's literally "disappear!" in the strongest/crudest command form. Since 失せる isn't really used much outside of that specific usage, though, I think it's fair to gloss it as cruder than really being "disappear!"

    And to chime in on the "mukatsuku" talk, I think it's best understood by imagining a beet red cartoon character with puffed up cheeks. It's the kind of thing you say when you're both peeved and kind of powerless to do anything about it, or jokingly when someone is teasing you. It doesn't express red hot anger so much as what young Americans would call "butthurt".

  28. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 9:40 am

    From Cecilia Segawa Seigle:

    You have looked into a very interesting language question: the lack of swear word in Japanese.
    And the Inventory of Japanese Swear Words is indeed an impressive, excellent list.

    However, there are certain items in the list that are not really swear words.
    e.g. kisama (きさま、貴様), as you can see from the kanji, started out as a polite word. It has gradually changed and toward the end of the Edo period it has pejorated down to the term of familiarity or slightly below meaning "You". It has come down to the level of こいつ、あいつ, which are terms of general insult.

    いやらしい also cannot be described as a swear term. It is a descriptive term of general dislike, describing something repulsive, as the author of the list says about another case:
    くちきたない kuchikitanai Talks unpleasantly, negative, bitchy
    is also a description of someone's tendency to use rough, unrefined words and repulsive descriptions. It cannot be included in a list of swear word.

    The additional description of the compiler of this list outside of the box frame is very good:
    "Suffixes like me (奴) or yarou (野郎) may also be added to emphasize, like koshinuke yarou (腰抜け野郎) "cowardly git" or hentaime (変態奴) "pervo". "

    Not spending too much time researching, I would like to add one word I can think of, to the Inventory of Japanese Swear Words. (should say bad-mouthing, rather than Swear words).
    It is an expression partially invented by the Japanese literary giant Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916) in his Wagahai wa neko de aru (I am a Cat)(1905).

    The protagonist observed and described by the Cat is the high school English teacher Mr. Kushami ( 中学校の英語教師である珍野苦沙弥、苦沙弥先生)。
    Kushami sensei's stance toward his wife is always mildly contemptuous, and his wife is extremely aware of it. One day he calls her "Otanchin Pareogogus" (オタンチン パレオロガス)
    which drives her crazy because she has never heard of the term. She accuses him for insulting her because she doesn't know English. She nags not only her husband but also a frequent visitor, Kushami's former student, Tatara Sanpei.
    She says to Tatara, "Otanchin must be bald, and Pareorogus must be Head." This is because she has a bald spot on her head, as a result of the Japanese women's hair style (of the Edo period into Meiji). They had to pull their hair to form a Japanese style chignon. Doing this everyday evidently caused a bald spot on top of their heads.
    Tatara's answer is, "I don't know; I'll have to look up in the Webster (Dictionary)."

    Otanchin was an Edo period term for a fool, stupid. and オ タンチン パレオロガス was a pun of Constantine Palaeologus, the Roman emperor. I am not sure whether this was Sōseki's
    invention, but it wouldn't surprise me if he did invent it.
    Anyway オタンチン パレオロガス fascinated me as a child when I read "I am a Cat" repeatedly. Evidently a lot of people were fascinated by it.
    I just found a Japanese Blog called " オ タンチンパレオロガス! 漱石を慕いて" (Otanchin Pareogogus! Yearning after Sōseki) .

    In it I found another insulting word I had forgotten. Otankonasu (オタンコナス) It is the same as Otanchin, meaning "Fool, Stupid, Manuke" etc.

    《第五》 オタンチン・パレオロガス
    http://neko.koyama.mond.jp/?eid=275053
    画/丹羽和子

    http://www.labo-party.jp/hiroba/top.php?PAGE=sugano&MENU=DIARYDETAIL&DIARY_ID=34951

  29. Ted said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    Slightly off topic, but was I the only one who was slightly startled to see "coño" in the Journal? Or is it milder than I realized?

  30. Andrew said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned that the lack of Japanese swear words is described in Ian Fleming's "You Only Live Twice", as part of James Bond's instruction in Japanese culture. Mind you, it also says that Sumo wrestlers have the ability to retract their testicles into their body cavities, so who knows what to believe..?

  31. GeorgeW said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 11:48 am

    "When hitting one's finger with a hammer, "Itai' is the most common expletive. It means ouch, or more literally translated 'It hurts!"

    I don't think this would have the same palliative effect as some of our English expletives. I personally find "sonofabitch" to be quite therapeutic. (FWIW, tests have shown that expletives do help relieve pain).

  32. Linda Chance said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

    "Mukatsuku" is at one end of the spectrum close to "gross" (or "eww, grooosss"). It is a combination of "start to feel" (-tsuku) and "nauseous" (mukamuka). When pronounced with enough venom toward another party, it can provoke violence. This is the way it can mean "you piss me off." Your host parents were perhaps reacting to its association with young delinquents, especially if your intonation was rough or exaggerated. Japanese words take on the function of swear words more to the extent that one debases the pronunciation–'iteee!' is more therapeutic than 'ital' when the hammer comes down.

  33. JR said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

    @Ted: "coño" is usually used to just mean "Damn!" Very commonly used like that in Spain, and, judging from the WSJ article and another one I've read recently, the Dominican Republic.

  34. Chris Henrich said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

    @John Chew on how "English is so crippled in its expression of politeness that it doesn't even have a distinction between tu and vous":
    In English we do a lot with "prosody" (pitch, stress, rhythm) that doesn't always make it onto the written page. I think I have read somewhere that, in the Army, "Yes Sir" can be can be said in ways that make it quite insulting.

  35. Bloix said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

    "I personally find "sonofabitch" to be quite therapeutic."
    That's what my father said (died at 85 ten years ago.) I thought it was completely obsolete.
    I tend to say "fucking hell" myself. Or "Jesus fuck." I haven't quite made the full move from blasphemy to obscenity.

  36. CD said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

    At least in the Caribbean, I don't think "coño" is something you'd print in the newspaper.

  37. chris said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

    Does usero 失せろ really mean "fuck off"? Or does it just mean "get lost".

    Don't those mean the same thing? One is more emphatic and rude than the other, but the actual meaning is the same.

    GTFO seems like it could be a reasonable translation too, depending on context.

    What is a swearword that thou art mindful of it?

  38. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2014 @ 10:52 pm

    @chris

    They are not the same. I'm sure that there are many people who would say the one but definitely not the other.

  39. Akito said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 12:29 am

    'iteee!' is more therapeutic than 'ital' [typo for 'itai'?] when the hammer comes down.

    Changing ai and ae to e(:) sounds eastern and slangy. In Kansai, you are much more likely to say "ita!", without the -i suffix. This use of the stem in an interjectory manner applies to other ajectives, e.g., samu!, atsu!, haya!, oso!.

  40. Michael C. Dunn said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 1:16 am

    @PeterL: "Israelis have told me that Arabic provides the swear-words that Hebrew lacks." it certainly used to be true, but the influx of Russian immigrants has greatly widened the pool of words, I'm told.

  41. Rakau said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 5:21 am

    In Aotearoa New Zealand we speak English with about 5% of us speaking Te Reo Maori (New Zealand Maori). We don't have any real swear words in Maori. We tend to borrow from English, and sometimes transliterate. There is no word that cannot be said in public, however there are phrases rather than words that can be insulting, but the words themselves are not inherently offensive or obscene in the way that fuck or cunt are in English. In pre-European times saying pokokohua (boil your head) to someone could result in death as it compared a sacred part of the body with food, but now the word has little or no impact. For those not familiar with Te Reo Maori, it is a polynesian language spoken in the triangle extending from Hawai'i to New Zealand and across to Easter Island (Rapanui to us).

  42. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 9:02 am

    @Rakau

    When I first saw the All Blacks perform their ritualistic dance at the beginning of rugby matches, I thought that they were taunting the opposing team and imagined that they may even have been uttering insulting curses. After reading your remarks about the lack of swear words in Maori, I thought that I'd better look into the matter more closely. Now I realize that, although the the haka dance is controversial, it's not what I thought it was. This Wikipedia article offers a very detailed account of the Haka, including the words of the chants that accompany it:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haka_%28sports%29

    Rugby All Blacks NZ Haka 2012 – YouTube
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eybwV2OFaWg

  43. GeorgeW said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    These are great. Here is a recent one when New Zealand faced the US in basketball at the World Cup. Almost as good as the dance are the expressions on the Americans' faces – essentially, "what hell is this.?"

    basketballhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDucvQYlWj4

  44. Jo Lumley said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    Akito, or other readers: when Kansai Japanese speakers say ita!, samu!, etc. as you described, are they genuinely just using the adjective stem, such as /ita/, or is it /itaʔ/ (stem plus glottal stop), which in kana could be written いたっ ? Maybe I'm confusing two separate phenomena…

  45. PeterL said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    @akito — Wouldn't a Kansai person make the final vowel long — itaaaa’! / samuuuu’!, with a bit of a glottal stop and a rising tone? イタ〜ツ / サム〜ツ

    (I've wondered if this is related to the honorific form form, such as samū gozaiamasu)

  46. Jessica Kim said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    On the topic of Israeli swearing, my Israeli friend mentioned that Yiddish is also sometimes used for swearing. (She also mentioned Arabic and possibly another language.) Since it's the revived version of a language that used to be mainly used for holy ritual purposes, I suppose it makes sense that they'd rather borrow from other languages.

    I also agree about the power of pronouns in Japanese. When I watch subtitled Japanese shows, words like "teme" ("you") will get translated as "you bastard" and other such swearwords. Japanese and English simply seem to have different ways of insulting people. I think the insulting pronouns are used much, much more in fiction than in real-life, but they are used.

  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    If Ichiro really said "¿Qué coño tú mira?" (instead of "miras"), his opponent might have had even more trouble suppressing his laughter. However, the standard of proofreading Spanish in that article doesn't seem to be very high.

  48. Elessorn said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

    This could just be another one of those things where what feels like Japanese weirdness is just the shock of realizing that what seemed bones-and-gut natural and universal, isn't.

    Someone raised the hammer trope above, but I'm not sure cursing at pain is necessarily anything more than a learned ritual. At least it doesn't seem more elemental than saying "Thank God!" at relief, and that's definitely a (culturally-specific) ritual. Thought of this way, there's no law of pragmatics that needs a particular set of marked words to perform those acts of contempt and comraderie we associate with cursing in English.

    Case in point: it's absolutely true, as Dr. Mair suspected, that usero 失せろ literally means something like "get lost" — the image of disappearing from sight is a close match. And this is a lot milder (to my American ears) than "fuck off." But I can easily see it having the latter's effect in usage. The word itself is certainly impolite (though not "dirty"), but the real power comes from the degree of contempt conveyed by all the polite, plain, or even less rude alternative set phrases the addressee knows the speaker has deliberately avoided, as well as from the weight of a bare imperative (the ro here) in a speech culture where elaborate request formulas are so common, a simple "please do" can at times feel brusque. Add to this the implication of superiority– "I'm not afraid to treat you with what we both know is undisguised disdain." These elements can all be there in "fuck off" of course, but though it's difficult to demonstrate, the huge importance of politeness calibration in Japanese means that a little bit of calculated rudeness goes a long way.
    (That said, I think "fuck off" tends to lean a bit more towards vehemence , usero more towards cold dismissal.)

    Another good example: shiru ka? might innocently translate as "like I know", but often strikes the ear as something closer to: "like I give a fuck."

  49. Akito said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

    @Jo Lumley

    You are right, it is [itaʔ], etc., phonetically. I didn't write the glottal stop because (1) versions without it and (2) versions with a lengthened final vowel are also possible, and because the phonemic status of the glottal stop is untenable.

    @PeterL

    The version you mention, with BOTH a lengthened final vowel AND a glottal stop, is entirely possible. The final rise, I think is, is a low-rise.

    The long vowel in [samu:] in the honorific form is actually /uu/, i.e., with a /k/ dropped from the sequence /samuku/. The penultimate vowel doesn't have to be /u/. For example, ohayou (fr. ohayau fr. ohayaku) has ou, pronounced [o:]. And not just in honorific forms. In Kobe vernacular, mite(o)ru is often pronounced [mito:], and this extends to all verbs suffixed with -te(o)ru ~ -te(i)ru.

  50. Elessorn said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

    @PeterL

    As for the "honorific form" of adjectives, the explanation of this sound change in the link you give is generally correct (e.g. hayaku > 1. hayau > 2. hayō ), though originally it had nothing to do with honorific language. Dropping the k of the adjective ending ku seems to have been a pretty common option in earlier (Western) Japanese– it's all over Classical literary texts, and in a wide variety of constructions.

    In any case, a different phenomenon than the use of the uninflected adjective root for emphasis (samu!), which also goes way back.

    Off topic, but I do wonder how this one "honorific" construction got a toehold in standard Eastern Japanese, though. Does anyone know? It's still found in Western Japan ( ookyū natta ne! 大きゅうなったね!–"Look how much you've grown!" ), but it sticks out like a sore thumb in the standard language. I have my doubts that it's much of a productive form at all to people, say, born and raised in Tokyo.

  51. JR said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    @JerryF

    Yeah. The proofreading in that article made me think it was all a hoax. How can you spell it "muy" in one sentence and then spell it "mui" in the next?!

  52. Akito said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

    @Elessorn

    One folk theory is that provincial, and especially Kyoto, samurais' wives, daughters, and courtiers who were made to reside in Edo for captivity by the Shogunate brought the refined language of Kyoto with them. That's why you find the k-less forms only in polite expressions of the (now) standard language of Tokyo. I find it ironical that this k-dropping, called u-onbin ウ音便, is fast disappearing from the speech of Kansai residents, apart from fixed expressions.

  53. jo lumley said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 5:28 pm

    Akito and PeterL, thank you for the illuminating comments.

    My original motivation for asking about the glottal stop was this. It occurs to me we don't (as far as I can see) otherwise find a bare adjective stem without inflectional suffix(es) in Japanese. So I thought maybe the presence of [ʔ] — or a lengthened vowel, for that matter — could 'rescue' the proposition that bare adjective stems don't occur. But it looks like this was faulty reasoning, especially if (as seems sensible enough) phoneme status can't be established for [ʔ] in Japanese.

  54. TR said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

    "Israelis have told me that Arabic provides the swear-words that Hebrew lacks." it certainly used to be true, but the influx of Russian immigrants has greatly widened the pool of words, I'm told.

    English contributes its share, too: shit is what many Israelis would say after hitting their thumb with a hammer, and fucking has actually been imported together with its syntax: it can appear between the definite article and its noun, which are otherwise completely inseparable in Hebrew.

  55. julie lee said,

    September 6, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

    "Fuck off!" reminds me of the expletive "Get out!" (i.e., "Get out of my sight,
    you wretch !" ) and its Mandarin equivalent "滾開! (GUN KAI !) " , which literally means "Roll off (you wretch) !" My dad would say that to me and my siblings when were were teens and incurred his wrath. I never understood why we had to roll instead of walk, but I imagined you'd say that to a slave or wretch in the old days, and the wretch would be on his knees, and rolling off would be the natural thing to do.

  56. michael farris said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 4:30 am

    "If Ichiro really said "¿Qué coño tú mira?" (instead of "miras"), his opponent might have had even more trouble suppressing his laughter."

    Lots of Spanish speakers in the Caribbean usually pronunce miras like mira.

  57. jo lumley said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 4:35 am

    Those interested in (attempts at) Japanese equivalents to English profanity might enjoy this video, which is a 'dynamic' Japanese subtitled version of Cee Lo Green's song 'Fuck You' (the sweary version, naturally): http://youtu.be/PPE6HIHif-Q

    There are many features of interest, both in the several different translations supplied for fuck you itself as well as numerous other devices used to convey the general aggressive/profane register of the lyrics.

    So to point out just one thing, one of the video's fuck you equivalents not so far mentioned in comments above is kutabacchimae, roughly 'go ahead and die' (I think?). Kojien gives kutabaru as a profane word for 'die' (死ぬことをののしっていう語). From that we get kutabatte shimae 'go ahead and die / just die already', which is already a bare imperative. Then for good measure, -tteshimae is contracted to -cchimae.

  58. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 5:32 am

    @julie lee

    =====

    "Fuck off!" [1] reminds me of the expletive "Get out!" [2] (i.e., "Get out of my sight, you wretch !" ) and its Mandarin equivalent "滾開 [3] (GUN KAI!"), which literally means "Roll off (you wretch) !"

    =====

    I would never say [1], if I were really, really angry I might say [3], and if I were quite upset I might say [2]. To me, the levels of insult and invective among them are markedly different.

    Gǔn kāi 滾開 ("roll out", i.e., "get out") is a sanitized version of gǔndàn 滾蛋 ("roll out of here like an egg"), where dàn 蛋 ("egg") is probably a reference to wángbā dàn 王八蛋 [lit. "turtle's egg"] / wàng bà dàn 忘爸蛋 [lit., "egg that forgot its father"] ("bastard; son of a bitch").

    See "Bad Egg" (4/5/11)

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3073#comment-117717

    esp. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3073#comment-117717

    where this expression is analyzed in detail, and all the other many comments to that post, where the semantics of "egg" in Chinese and other languages are discussed at length.

    See also "Roll out of here, Mubarak" (4/3/11).

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3069

  59. GeorgeW said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 7:43 am

    It seems to me there is a difference between taboo words and words (or phrases) that are just impolite or rude. Taboo words are still taboo even when used in a non-confrontaltional context.

  60. julie lee said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 11:45 am

    Thank you, Victor Mair, for elucidating "GUN KAI ! " (Roll off (you wretch)!). Mystery solved. There's also a variant "GUN CHUQU ! " ("Roll OUT (of my sight, you wretch)", which we often heard from our dad at home after a long excoriating tirade at our misbehaviour.

    Speaking of "egg" (meaning "bastard") in Mandarin, I don't know if Victor has already explicated the meanings of "HUN DAN!" [ "(You) muddy egg!] meaning "You bastard!" or
    "HUN ZHANG !" ["(You) muddy rod/stick" !! ] , which has the same expletive force but whose meaning was always a mystery to me. I think well-bred women also used these expletives quite a lot because they didn't understand their obscene meaning.

  61. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

    From an old German friend who remembers German as it was spoken half a century ago:

    =====

    Berliners never used dirty language — they used silly words/sayings which were really quite disarming because the recipient thereof required some time to figure this out and by then the one who had spoken them had long since walked away.

    When hitting one's finger, it was entirely possible to hear Himmelkruzituerken" (heaven crucify* the Turks)

    *kruzi is "short-talk" for crucifying". But this was also used in many other situations such as telling someone to get a move on, or merely as an expression that was used when one was totally frustrated with someone or something.

    I haven't a clue what they do now-a-days. TV has changed so much and English has imposed a lot of bad habits.

    But the Bavarians are very good with their known "colorful" language.

    One of my American bosses (in Munich) one morning arrived at the office asking me to translate a string of words. I could only respond by asking "whatever have you done?" I could never tell him what these words meant; they were too awful.

    My boss had driven somewhere where he shouldn't have.

    And then a pet peeve: Whoever translated the subtitles of the German movie "Das Boot", used a word that was NEVER used by any German, including soldiers of any kind.

  62. hector said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

    Re "fuck off": In my experience, it has multiple uses. It can be used in anger, exasperation, or protestation, with the accompanying appropriate emotional tone. Thus, "fuck off" (get off my property/out of my space, or, you are an absolute idiot); "fuck off" (you have got to be kidding me); "fuck off" (that is so not true). With the last two, there can be an element of humour involved. There are probably additional uses of the expression that aren't coming to mind at the moment.

    Re Berliners "half a century ago": I find it hard to believe that In 1964 Berliners didn't say "scheisse." I suppose it could be true, but I'd need more than one anecdote to believe it.

  63. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    Dear Prof. Mair,

    Sorry, your old German friend wrote hair-raising nonsense. I, too, remember German from the 1950s (born in 1936 in Bavaria and specializing in "bad words.")

    Berliners never used dirty language

    Total nonsense.

    When hitting one's finger, it was entirely possible to hear Himmelkruzituerken" (heaven crucify* the Turks)
    *kruzi is "short-talk" for crucifying".

    Hair-raising nonsense. Kruzitürken is a common euphemism for the blasphemous exclamation Kruzifix! and has definitely nothing to do with crucifying the Turks.

    Irrelevant remainder ignored.

  64. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

    @hector @Reinhold {Rey} Aman

    Thanks for your observations.

    I probably should have said "more than half a century ago"; I think that my old German friend came to America in the late 40s or early 50s.

    She did acknowledge that the Bavarians have particularly colorful language. When I was in Berlin last year, the Berliners were still saying the same thing of the Bavarians, and I was surprised when I sat next to a person from Bavaria who said the same thing about her countryfolk. Moreover, I have read similar descriptions in handbooks on regional differences among the people of Germany, so there really must be something special about the way Bavarians talk.

    My impression is that my old German friend came from a particularly proper Berlin family, so perhaps her ears were shielded from some of the more colorful expressions of Berliners themselves.

  65. JR said,

    September 7, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

    @MichaelFerris:

    Yes, but a newspaper should be expected to spell things correctly.

    @VictorMair:

    I didn't understand what your friend said at all, since she didn't give examples of what those "colorful expressions" might be.

    From what I know about curse words, as at least one commenter has mentioned above, while languages have the same words for them all, it doesn't mean that they all coincide with English use of scatological and sexual curse words. One of the most common insults in Spanish is "Imbécil." One of the most common in German is "Schwein." Neither is scatological or sexual.

  66. Plane said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 12:07 am

    @Jo Lumley: According to Frellesvig's 2010 A History of the Japanese Language, p.79-80, this exclamatory use of adjective stems goes back to Old Japanese.

  67. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    @ Victor Mair:
    She [your old German friend] did acknowledge that the Bavarians have particularly colorful language.

    True, we Bavarians enjoy the reputation of speaking a colorful, earthy, blunt language. That's partly true, partly stereotypical. There are many Bavarians (especially middle- and upper-class women) who don't use colorful Schimpfwörter, blasphemies, or obscenities – at least not in public.

    Our neighbors to the west (Swabians), northwest (Franconians) and east (Austrians), as well as all other German "tribes," also speak their colorful and earthy language – but only the "rude" Bavarians with their Lederhosen get singled out.

    In 1973, I compiled the Bayrisch-Österreichisches Schimpfwörterbuch (dictionary of Austro-Bavarian terms of abuse) with 2,400 "colorful" nouns and adjectives, still the standard work on this topic:
    http://aman.members.sonic.net/boes.html

    If your refined Berliner friend would read it, she'd exclaim, "Ach Gott! Diese groben Bayern!" and fall into a coma….

  68. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    Going back to the beginning, I think baka and the extended bakayaro must have been among the first bits of colloquial Japanese I learned from peers (i.e. other gaijin kids) rather than adult teachers or Berlitz-guide-type references upon moving to Japan at age 8 (many decades ago). We gaijin kids definitely understood it as insulting but not really taboo, in the sense that it would be hazardous to say it directly to a teacher but it was not the sort of thing you needed to be especially careful about not saying to another kid when within earshot of a teacher. We could have misunderstood its strength, of course, and this would have been the rather specialized context of gaijin kids insulting (or mock-insulting) other gaijin kids within potential earshot of gaijin teachers on the playground at the American School. (There was nonetheless presumably some coherent sociolinguistic reason we wanted to add some indigenous lexical content to our playground-insult options.)

  69. Bradley Phillips said,

    September 11, 2014 @ 9:51 am

    Probably the one words that I know of in Japanese that would qualify towards swear words would be words related to the burakumin. The words would be heta or hinin.

  70. Bradley Phillips said,

    September 11, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    That should be eta I think.

  71. Bradley Phillips said,

    September 11, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    kichigai may be another taboo word.

  72. K said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

    @Jeroen Mostert: you mentioned that in Dutch swearing in English is common but weaker. No one has mentioned it yet, but I think similarly in English the foreign swear words are weaker. At least in the circles I grew up in people said scheisse if they thought they'd get in trouble for saying shit.

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