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Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007

Euphemisms may mask ruder instincts -- or not


Special to The Japan Times

No one likes their euphemisms (enkyoku na kotoba) and circumlocutions more than the Japanese. If there is an inoffensive (sashisawari no nai) way to say something, they will find it; and if there isn't, they will make one up.

Of course, the Japanese do not have a monopoly when it comes to linguistically beating around the bush. Victorian-era British referred to their underclothes as "unmentionables," while Russians once called the "restroom" (an American euphemism for the john) "the place where the czar goes on foot."

But only Japanese could create a squeaky-clean word like gofujo, or "the honorable unclean place," for the little room. These euphemisms may seem harmless, but they can cause no end of misunderstanding.

Japanese people will use the squirmiest circumlocutions to avoid a confrontation. If you ask for something, you may be given the genteel refusal, kangaete okimasu. This literally means "I will think it over," and no Japanese would ever interpret this as a yes.

Another, more convoluted, refusal is indicated with maemuki-ni kento sasete itadakimasu (literally, "I will examine [your proposal] in a positive manner." Make that "positively no."

In Japanese "maybe" means "no" and "yes" means "maybe." So, you may wonder, how in tarnation (which is a euphemism from "eternal" and "damnation") do they ever get anything done? Search me. For instance, if a guy said to his date, "Issho ni yoake no kohi o no- mimasenka (Would you drink a cup of coffee at dawn with me?)," would she realize that he was offering her more than a shot of caffeine? The expression "coffee at dawn" comes from a nearly 40-year-old pop song, "Koi no Kisetsu." If you are going to use this, I advise you to try it first on a woman over 60.

Euphemisms soften the shock of words; and humans are most shocked, it seems, by words that describe sex, God and death, not necessarily in that order. The Japanese word neru (to sleep [with]) is a universal euphemism for making love. The most common euphemism for the horny, randy and raunchy is ecchi. This word derives from the first letter, h, of hentai, meaning abnormal or perverted. In its verbal form, it indicates the sex act itself.

It is a characteristic of Japanese society that people avoid strong statements of like and dislike. Such statements are often considered the height of unrefinement. Take the common word nigate, which indicates one's weakness for or at something, as in chotto eigo ga nigate desu (I'm not really very good at English).

But many Japanese people will use this word, which essentially is about one's inability to cope with something, when expressing a dislike for something or someone. Ano otoko wa nigate da means "I can't take that guy, I really dislike that man." Domo kaki ga nigate desu may literally mean "I'm not so good when it comes to eating oysters," but everyone knows that this is actually a polite way of saying, "Sorry, but I don't like oysters." If you told your Japanese host, who has served oysters, Sumimasen ga kaki wa suki ja nai desu (Excuse me, but I don't like oysters), this would surely hurt their feelings. And that's one of the things euphemisms were invented for, to prevent people from hurting other people's feelings.

They were also invented to avoid blasphemy or to protect the speaker from the accusation of misdeed. English, in particular, is rich in words altered so as not to be blasphemous. These include "gosh" and "golly" from "God," and "gee" from "Jesus."

The Japanese, being a largely areligious people, have few of these. But when referring to superiors, they bend over backward to sound decorous.

There are numerous words to describe someone's death, and the more respected the deceased, the more high-flown the expression, from takai suru (a word for "pass on" that goes back to the 14th century historical war chronicle, the Taiheiki), to onakunari-ni na- rareru, a compound honorific which sends the poor soul up and away in a blaze of syllables.

As for misdeeds, a politician who takes a sode no shita, literally an "under the sleeve," is actually accepting money under the table; and someone guilty of itazura (literally mischief, a prank) may have committed a serious sex crime. Itazura is a nasty euphemism that may cover up an act of abuse against a child; the sooner this meaning falls into disuse, the better.

And this brings us to the question, is the euphemism a coverup for people's natural, often darker, instincts, or just a flowery way to gild a lily? I'll think about it, if you will.

E-mail your comments to bilingual@japantimes.co.jp


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