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Saturday, Aug. 28, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Words to live by . . . like it or not


Searching for that perfect word to express your truest, dearest, innermost special feelings? Well . . .

"When in doubt," said Mark Twain, "swear."

And damn good advice, too!

Yet this tender bond of emotion and word is often blunted by living long years in Japan. That is, for some people it is blunted. There are in this world certain individuals who could swear their way through a reinforced concrete wall without much trouble (with several of these people being my relatives). Awesome talent such as this is seldom diminished by living abroad, and is likely even enhanced by the overseas experience. In fact, for some people, swearing is enhanced by any experience.

But for most of us run-of-the-mill tongue-smiths, conflict with the foreign language both erodes native word selection and pushes Japanese terms into the load-and-fire area of the brain. In a pinch, then, it is often Japanese words that shoot out first, like it or not.

What words, exactly? Perhaps each person's list is different, but my own knee-jerk Japanese is as follows.

Shimatta! "Shimatta" is what Britney Spears might translate as, "Oops, I did it again!" For me, a "shimatta" will pop out whenever I dribble coffee down my best shirt or lug the family garbage mindlessly pass the trash container, onto my commuter line and right to my desk at work. Sometimes I manage both of these "shimattas" in the same morning -- along with four or five others. On bad days I will sputter out "shimattas" as if I were a go-cart stuck on high. Good days, then, can be hard to find.

"Shimatta" is actually short for "shimaimashita," which I am told means either "to do something to its fullest extent" or "I'm a horse's heinie," depending on how literal your view is.

Yabai! "Yabai" is the first word to leap from my mouth when I realize I have been leaning on my commuter strap for 20 minutes with my fly wide open . . . and that I have another 20 minutes yet to go. Snap translations: 1. "Yikes!" 2. "Uh-oh!" 3. "I'm a horse's heinie." (For me, this fits almost anywhere.)

In nonperfect Tom-speak, the difference between "yabai" and "shimatta" seems to be that with the latter the larger pain has already passed and only the humiliation remains. The former, however, is more of a work in progress. It can be described as that cruel instant of mental clarity -- right before that first drop hits -- when you suddenly realize, "Hey . . . I grabbed the wrong bottle! This isn't Visine! It's Tabasco!"

Maitta na! The word "maitta" means "I have been defeated," but to me "maitta na" is the logical progression of "shimatta" and "yabai" -- as in past, present and future -- and refers to a disaster yet to come. The term projects as "I'm doomed."

For example, I use "maitta na" when I pull open the door to my house and hear my wife say: "Welcome home. Did you pay the phone bill like I asked?"

Here "maitta na" fits because my wife had in truth told me to pay the bill the day before -- and the day before that as well -- and in yesterday's apology I had boldly announced that only a man with a beach ball for a brain could possibly forget three days in a row and that I would gladly paint my face with beach ball stripes if I did so.

Now, of course, I realize the bill is still in my bag . . . and I see she has the paint all prepared. Maitta na.

Of course I could have also said "yabai" or "shimatta," but the terms seem fairly interchangeable -- much like English profanities -- with the difference being that the Japanese words are not vulgar and can be used anywhere and often. Sometimes these three are the only Japanese I speak all day long.

Yoisho! "Yoisho" doesn't mean anything really, making it one of my favorite communicative tools. The proper time to say "yoisho" is when you have made a physical effort, as in bending over, straightening up or perhaps just breathing. For example, I give a "yoisho" when I pick up my bag. And then when I set it down. And then when I set myself down too.

There is also "dokkoisho," which carries the same meaning but is reserved for even harder exertion. I tend not to use "dokkoisho" so much.

"No, no," says my wife. "You never use 'dokkoisho' ever."

Mukatsuku! In truth, this bit of slang is not one of my automatic popouts, but I feel compelled to comment on a term that in essence means, "I'm so irked I think I'll barf."

The proper way to say "mukatsuku" is to stretch out the final syllable, a la: mukatsukuuu. This serves to express exactly how much you want to barf. The image falls a little short of endearing, and so does the sound. A bunch of high school girls drawing out a "mukatsuku" can resonate like a fingernail being scraped across a blackboard.

"Mukatsuku" can be applied to almost any irritation, even the self-inflicted sort, per below:

At a dinner party, I am suddenly asked my opinion on a profound matter, like who would make the better Bond villain, Condoleezza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld? The room falls silent as I swallow my sushi and speak. Soon I am addressing a small crowd of men, everyone fascinated by my passion. Hence I increase volume and ramble on . . . and on.

Until I turn to find the real object of their attention: a young lady in a sexy dress.

Say it with me now: Mukatsukuuuuuuu.

The English equivalent here would be but one syllable, delivered under the breath.

Should you trust me on these words? Well, I may be more horse's heinie than horse's mouth, but I do communicate.

I swear.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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