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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Japanese Language Trivia of the Day:

When I was a kid, I used to drink a lot of ginger ale. Before I ever knew what 'ginger' or 'ale' was, I started drinking it and "ginger ale" existed in my mind as a single unit of meaning: it was a fizzy drink, it was the color of Coke mixed with water, and it was the only thing besides tomato juice at my grandmother's house.

It wasn't until I was 19 years old, and eating sushi in America for the umpteenth time when I had the revelation that the very same ginger I was using to cleanse my palette between pieces of raw fish, was possibly related to "ginger ale," and when it hit me I was like, "Whoa." And then I moved on quickly.

What I'm trying to say is that learning Japanese is EXACTLY like that. Well, maybe not exactly. But... pretty much. For example, when I first got to Japan. I knew the words 「楽しい」 and 「おいしい」 as descriptive adjectives, and when I first heard someone say 「楽しんで」, I thought, "Hey, that's neat."

For about three weeks, Japanese people who came to my house to eat let me continue to say 「おいしんで」 before someone finally explained to me that 「楽しんで」 only works because there's a 「楽しむ」 verb.

Point is, when you learn a language through immersion, first you hear something, then you take it in, and only later, if you're lucky, do you start to figure out how the language works.

So today's post is something that was a bit of an embarrassing revelation for me, mostly because it reflects on how much I didn't know.

One of the first words that I learned in the Japanese language class I shared with the other Yo-ji guys, Nirav and Brett, was 臭い (くさい: kusai), because our teacher, Ogawa-sensei, used to call Brett a 臭いヤンキー all the time. When somebody in the class translated it (she didn't speak any English), it came out as "stinky." And we thought that was hilarious, Brett actually being such a foul-smelling punk-ass. The more subtle connotations of "shady" and "suspicious" didn't come across at the time. He just smelled bad.

Later, I learned the word メンドクサイ (mendokusai) as a completely separate entity, without the advantage of knowing the words 面倒 (めんどう; mendou) or 面倒 (めんどい; mendoi). The second means "troublesome" or "bothersome," and the first means "difficulty" or "trouble," but it can also mean "attention" or "care," as in 「子供の面倒: caring for children.」 So even though I knew from the beginning that メンドクサイ meant "pain in the ass," it wasn't until much later that I realized the connection. メンドクサイ is used to refer to something that requires so much care and attention that it reeks.

At least that's how I think of it. Some websites will define 臭い as functioning like ~らしい, but when I realized how many of the words made with 臭い lend themselves to a "stinks" interpretation, I was sold on it.

Warning: Just like メンドクサイ, all of these words are subject to the rules of Japanese profanity. In other words, the tone and force with which you say them can turn them into something very offensive.


reeks of lies.

Not only can this be used literally, to call b.s. on someone, but it's also used for things that have a generally phony air. Japanese people might say it about every overseas sushi restaurant run by non-Japanese. Or they might say it about some of the tacky, tourist-trappy re-creations of overseas destinations right here in Japan, like fake Venice or fake Easter Island.


stinks of inexperience; tastes too strongly of raw herbs; grassy-smelling; smells like blue?

No, it doesn't actually have anything to do with this awesome cheese, but I've heard it said of bad green curry, and of things too heavy on cilantro; I've even heard it explained as "緑の味がするっという意味." Coming from a culture that doesn't consider colors to smell or taste of anything, that didn't help much, but it's not that much of a stretch to see where this comes from. When you take into account the fact that green and blue are often interchangeable in Japanese, you can also understand how inexperience and general newbism might be labeled "blue" as well.


fishy; raw; smelling of fish or blood; undercooked.

Pretty straight forward, but even cooked food can be 生臭い。In America, we often say that you can tell when fish is no good when it tastes or smells like fish. In Japan, with its preference for 繊細な flavors, when meat still tastes too much like blood or meat, it's 生臭い。That's why many Japanese people do things like wash chicken before they cook it or soak raw pork in sake, to remove residual odors.


smells like dudes.

I was told that this could be used to describe things like locker rooms, sausage parties, or the sports club shed, or a bachelor pad. But when I asked what you would describe with 女臭い, I was told "Nothing. Women don't smell." I wasn't about to argue with this kind of statement, but even if I was inclined to try to find support for a contradictary position, researching post for The Daily has taught me better than to try looking up "smells like women" on the dirty, filthy, 男臭い internet. (koff koff)



あほ you might recognize if you're an anime or manga fan. Someone else might want to confirm this for me, but I think it's a convention that when someone does something stupid or embarrassing in one of these mediums, nearby crows start cawing 「アホアホ.」 Other than sounding vaguely like a bird noise, あほ means "fool," "idiot," or "jackass." あほくさい is simply "ridiculous."


stinks like foreigners.

For those foreigners who take 外人 to be an unforgivable xenophobic slur, this one's gonna hurt even more. But this is interesting: despite confirming with 3 or 4 immediately available native speakers that this is something that gets said, a Google search for 外人くさい gives very few direct results. Some of the results that it does yield though range from offensive, to rational (the first response, here), to HILARIOUS (You've GOT to check out otesu kakemasuさん's comment on this page)!

If you know any other good くさい expressions, tack 'em on the comments! よろしく。


Nirav said...

Also often written in kana. This has essentially the same meaning as うそくさい. If anything, I would say it sounds slightly more "shady." Often used to describe yours truly.

This means "hackneyed" or "cheesy" or "old-fashioned." Often used to describe yours truly.

This means that something looks like it was deliberately done in a fishy sort of way (e.g., that "car accident" was no accident!) Note that if you change the くさい to らしい the nuance changes to something closer to someone putting on an affect. In this sense, it is commonly used to described yours truly.

This literally means "smells like pee." It's used when someone says or does something that you would expect a little brat, or someone similarly immature, to do. It is often used in conjunction with the word "餓鬼" (ガキ), and to describe yours truly.

This is also written as ノロ臭い often. is used to describe something that is clumsy (note that 鈍 means dull, as opposed to 鋭い, meaning sharp), and brings to mind some sort of bumbling or fumbling or stumbling (though not really rumbling). Often used to describe yours truly.

This means "secretive" but has the special nuance of describing something that there was no reason to keep a secret between friends or similarly close people. That is, the person calling something 水くさい is expressing that, had their friend only come to them, had their friend not kept their problems a secret, the speaker would have done everything in their power to help. This is rarely used to describe me, because I am certainly always looking for people to do things for m... I mean, help me out when I'm in need.

Linny said...

Love looking at the ヤフー知恵袋 answers. Especially this one: でもたしかにアメリカの人は柔軟剤の甘いにおいがしたりします.

There must be something there, as I have heard the same answer from many of my students and the teachers I work with. (「先生はやっぱりアメリカ人やな。柔軟剤のにおいから!」 「あぁ~!ホンマや!」. Then they all tried to sniff me...)

Anonymous said...

uh.. nice thread )