Japanese "totally" (not)

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of The Asahi Shimbun.  Today's column is titled "Different use of ‘zenzen’ fails to annoy Japanese language police" (9/29/29).

I still remember the shock of hearing the phrase "zenzen daijobu" for the first time about 20 years ago.

"Zenzen" is an adverb that modifies negative verbs and various other types of negative words and phrases, as in "zenzen shiranai," which means "don't know at all."

But "daijobu," which stands for OK, or fine, is an affirmative word, not negative. Now, if this isn't the ultimate example of the misuse of language, what is?

However, once I became accustomed to this phrase, I had to admit this was rather interesting.

"Zenzen daijobu" is fully accepted today, and its usage is apparently not entirely wrong.

According to "Nihonjin mo Nayamu Nihongo" (The Japanese language that puzzles even the Japanese people) by linguist Shigehiro Kato, the usage of zenzen with an affirmative word was already in evidence during the Edo Period (1603-1867), and was not rare during the ensuing Meiji Era (1868-1912), either.

In his novel "Botchan," Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) used zenzen with the affirmative phrase "warui desu" (it is bad).

Whenever it may have started, using zenzen before affirmative words has somehow become the mainstream, blurring the line between the correct and the incorrect.

In that sense, it is quite interesting that there is a gradual decline in the number of people who feel the Japanese language is being corrupted, according to a survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Twenty years ago, 85 percent of respondents felt the language was going downhill, but the number fell to 66 percent in the most recent survey.

It appears that people's readiness to accept changes has grown along with the continued evolution of the Japanese language.

And the language changes with the times. "Burakku kigyo" (black enterprise) was originally a slang for businesses with yakuza gangster connections. But it later came to denote businesses that ruthlessly abuse and exploit young workers, and that triggered a movement to expose offending companies and bring them to justice.

On the other hand, questions have been raised, from the standpoint of eliminating racism, about using the word "black" in that negative context.

To go back to the use of zenzen before affirmative words, the current usage is said to be an effort to show consideration toward other people.

Let's say someone asked you, "The dishes I made aren't delicious, are they?" If you answer, "zenzen oishii," you are being kind, as "oishii" means delicious.

Words reflect human relations, too.

Here are entries from two major online Japanese dictionaries, both of which show that the adverb zenzen ぜんぜん / 全然 ("totally; entirely; completely; at all; altogether; in the slightest") is normally used with negative constructions:






Selected readings

"An Eighteenth-Century Japanese Language Reformer" (4/23/15)


[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Jon W said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 5:03 pm

    In the Midori dictionary app, almost all of the many example sentences given for zenzen incorporate a negative, but a few do not. Notably, though, those few still have a negative feel to them.

    Our attempts to convince him were totally (zenzen) in vain.

    He looked confident but his inner feelings were totally (zenzen) different.

    I am totally (zenzen) against it.

  2. Jim Breen said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 6:05 pm

    Both of the "major online Japanese dictionaries" quoted use data from the JMdict dictionary database project, which I founded and of which I am an editor. Unfortunately neither keeps their versions updated, so the links quoted do not completely reflect the actual current 全然/ぜんぜん entry. You can see the current entry at: https://www.edrdg.org/jmdictdb/cgi-bin/entr.py?svc=jmdict&sid=&q=1395620 As can be seen, sense 3 of the term – "(col) (pos. context, e.g. 全然いいよ) extremely; very" specifically covers positive use of the term.

    I don't know why the author of the column was "shocked" by this usage, or why it "has somehow become the mainstream, blurring the line between the correct and the incorrect", as I am not sure it has ever been regarded as incorrect, at least not in the last century or so.

  3. NOEL HUNT said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 6:32 pm

    The Asahi Shinbun's English translation of the title of that column is risible and particularly tendentious. The Japanese is simply 言葉は世につれ, 'kotoba ha yo ni tsure', ('language follow the world!'), from an expression 'yo ni tsureru', ('yo' world, 'tsureru' follow) meaning 'to change in accordance with changes in the world'. There is no hint of anything resembling 'language police'. I am sure it was most vexing to the author that he or she had no room to insert 'male' before 'language police' ('white male' being, of course, inapplicable in Japan). As to 'zenzen' in its current use, well, it's the intensifier for all occasions for those with a paucity of vocabulary; 'zenzen ii', 'zenzen daizyoubu', 'zenzen oishii', 'zenzen ureshii' &tc. ('good', 'OK', 'delicious', 'happy')

  4. Bathrobe said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 7:06 pm

    Agree with Jim Breen. Twenty years ago I was well and truly out of Japan but it was perfectly familiar to me from way back in the 80s, at least. I find it hard to believe this person was shocked.

  5. Josh Reyer said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 7:31 pm

    "Only use 'zenzen' in (grammatically) negative constructions," is a common teaching in Japanese as a foreign language classes, which becomes an attractive and handy rule to those who like to police language.

    I think it would be more correct to remove that paranthetical "grammatically" and say that "zenzen" is used in negative or negating statements, even when those statements are grammatically affirmative.

    For example, "Zenzen ii yo," or "Zenzen daijoubu," are not just saying something like "It's totally fine," but are implicitly negating the question "Isn't it a problem?"

    You can see that this nuance is somewhere in the back of the author's mind, since their example for "Zenzen oishii" is in answer to a very awkward negative question.

    It would have been much more interesting to explore and explain that real-world usage, than to say, "X is wrong. But people do it anyway, and maybe they're not wrong."

  6. Twill said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 8:09 pm

    @Josh Reyer Also has the benefit of accounting for the very common
    and uncontroversial usage of 全然 to modify the verb 違う in the grammatical affirmative.

  7. Akito said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 8:15 pm

    I use zenzen to indicate what my interlocutor may have assumed isn't the case. I'm saying "on the contrary". It has little to do with whether my statement is grammatically positive or negative. The usage is pragmatic rather than grammatical.

  8. cameron said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 8:37 pm

    I remember being surprised when I first heard positive "anymore".

    Or I should say, I was surprised when I first heard it in spoken conversation. I realized later that I had already heard it in the lyrics to "Too Many Creeps" by Bush Tetras, but in the context of the song I guess it just registered as poetic license and didn't strike me as that odd

  9. Chris Button said,

    September 30, 2020 @ 7:24 am

    To Akito's point, I wonder if it might also simply represent contrary internal expectations on the part of the speaker rather than necessarily being associated with what someone else had said.

  10. Akito said,

    September 30, 2020 @ 8:17 am

    Yes. If some unfamiliar food turns out to be unexpectedly good, you might say, "Naan da, kore, zenzen ikeru jan (or ja nai)!"

  11. rpsms said,

    September 30, 2020 @ 10:32 am

    So it acts like the english "No, yeah" ?


  12. Jared said,

    October 1, 2020 @ 2:54 am

    Also worth mentioning, in my experience, that young people will use "zenzen" as a standalone when the verb or phrase can be understood from context, or when the verb or phrase was used in the other speaker's previous question. Something like this:

    – 最近忙しそう、今日は大丈夫?

    – 全然!

  13. Akito said,

    October 1, 2020 @ 7:24 am

    I must admit I have a hard time figuring out whether it stands for "Zenzen daijoubu" (="No problem at all") or "Zenzen daijoubu ja nai" (="Not at all OK"). Without the tone of voice, facial expression, etc., it can be very, very subtle.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 7:37 pm

    From John Whitman:

    Zenzen 全然 is of course a Chinese loan, so that naturally raises the question of just how the negation licensing environment relates to Chinese usage. I haven’t yet tried to look for the earliest examples, but zenzen differs from quanran in an important way. Quanran (in contemporary Mandarin at least) differs from zenzen in that it can be either under (as a negative polarity item “not completely”) or above (as an intensifier of negation) the scope of negation. The second (maybe most common) usage seems to be intensifier of negation (like J. zenzen):

    我本可以把它表述得全然不同。 https://www.xyzdict.com/en/chinese-english/%E5%85%A8%E7%84%B6

    ‘I would have phrased it quite differently.’

    But there is also NPI “not completely”:


    ‘It’s maybe not completely the same as what we understand.’ (Can’t remember where I got this)

    I don't know which if these came first in Chinese, but Japanese has only (1). Zenzen is (or was) a negative intensifier, that for many speakers has become simply an intensifier. My casual hypothesis would be that wide scope (intensifier > NEG) intensifiers are more liable to become plain intensifiers, while NPIs stay NPIs. This might explain why many English varieties have positive anymore, as in

    "Everything we do anymore seems to have been done in a big hurry." (Kingston, Ontario, 1979)

    (from the Wikipedia entry on positive anymore), while we don't have positive (other than free choice) anything. Since anymore is an adjunct, its position with regard to negation is relatively free. This may have led speakers to reanalyze anymore as potentially outside the scope of negation, leading to the non-NPI usage.

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