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Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The most annoying Japanese word


Several weeks ago a poll from the Marist Institute of Public Opinion — one that was slingshot quickly across the Internet — listed "whatever" as the most annoying of all English words.

Like, you know, it outpolled a whole glossary of other irksome conversational nuts and bolts, such as "like," "you know," and "anyway."

Anyway, this prompted me to dwell on what Japanese terms people here might be snapping their molars over. For while annoyance is a sentiment understood by every culture all around the world, one man's noodle slurp might well be another person's nipple slip.

Or vice versa. Depending upon personal preferences and how much you appreciate that ridiculous play on words.

Whatever, anyhow and so on, I decided to conduct my own poll as to the most annoying Japanese word. Constraints in time and resources prevented me from conducting my research as intensely as did Marist, who contacted 938 people within the United States. But I made up for this by trying to gather info from "intense" individuals. Or, in lieu of that, annoying ones. And sometimes "intensely annoying" ones. So what my poll lacks in breadth, I made up in depth.

And the results? Hundred percent of those polled — that's right, four out of four — listed the very same word as most annoying. Really.

Personally, I would have thought the winner would have been, "ne," that little doohickey of a term which is peppered copiously over all Japanese speech.

"Ne" is like, you know, an expression to solidify connection with one's listener. Most people use it a lot and some apply it constantly, like former jocks-turned sports announcers, who must have been busy at practice the day their schools taught other words.

The fun thing about "ne" is that it can be said in so many ways. You can zip it out as a poser at the start of a question, taffy-stretch it to kingdom come when voicing indignation, or chant it like a dull mantra when trapped by someone's monologue. And then there is the giddy schoolgirl version, used when the speaker is about to burst with information, and ultimately sounding like a CD player stuck on "ne."

It is perhaps this very barrel of monkeys-type variety that kept "ne" out of my poll of annoying words. Where the unanimous winner was . . .

"Maji" — pronounced "mahjee." A slangy invention which means, as said above, "Really."

Or, as the case may have it . . . "Can you believe it?" "I don't believe it." "Who would believe it?"

Well — believe it — "maji" is the winner. Why did it win?

First of all, among young adults and adolescents, "maji" usage is rampant. Most members of those groups can't have a conversation without it. In certain social sets, "maji" is the Attila of lexical choices, overrunning everyday talk the way the Huns took Europe. It is the roach horde in Japan's linguistic pantry. The pizza burn on the national tongue. The ever-present rain spoiling the Japanese language parade.

Whatever. The second and stronger reason is that "maji" inherently represents doubt. Authority figures — like parents, teachers and supervisors — aren't fond of having commands, requests or even simple statements met with will a wall of majis.

Teacher: Tomorrow we're having a quiz.

Students: Maji!?

Teacher: So you must study.

Students: Maji!?

Teacher: Because if you don't, you'll fail.

Students: Maji!?

Teacher: And if you say that word again, I'll leap from the roof!

Students: Maji!?

The good thing about maji is that most people seem to outgrow it. It's not like, you know, "you know," which will chase an American English speaker throughout his/her life like a bothersome gnat. With Japanese, the maji well begins to run dry when a person hits the workforce and then springs to life less and less after that.

In my case, I find no Japanese expression annoying — mostly because they all whiz past my head too fast. But I do have an ax to grind about a recent language contrivance in English, one that I keep meeting more and more in both spoken and written form.

That device is the insertion of — wait for it — the words "wait for it" into a snappy sentence. Words which, according to context, lend either a heightened effect of pause or an added touch of irony to the remark that follows. In simple terms it is an announcement that the whip is about to crack. "Wait for it" means, "OK, the punch line cometh."

But, like most annoying terms, it is overused. And I am thankful that orators and writers of the past knew not of this scar on the language. Can't you hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrapping up "I Have a Dream . . .

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are — Wait it for it — free at last!"

But language lovers will never be free as long as "wait for it" runs amuck!

Or like, you know, whatever.



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