Hot air, cold air

(Mono ieba kuchibiru samushi aki no kaze;
“When you say something, then your lips will feel the chill of an autumn wind”)


Being nasty will only make you feel bad later; shooting off your mouth invites disaster. Needlessly talking about other people’s (perceived) shortcomings and boasting about your own (perceived) virtues only invites ill-will and misfortune, so it’s better to be circumspect. “Silence is golden.” From the image of opening your mouth (for malicious gossip, etc.) and feeling an unpleasant chill as the autumn breeze brushes your lips.


We begin with noun 物 (mono), “thing,” compounded with verb 言う (iu), “to say.” The latter is in perfective form, with conditional suffix ば (ba), “when(ever).” This dependent clause is followed by noun 唇 (kuchibiru), “lip(s),” with adjective 寒し (samushi), “cold,” in conclusive form. This is followed by what I parse as a separate comment: a noun phrase comprising 秋 (aki), “autumn,” and 風 (kaze), “wind,” joined by associative particle の (no). One might imagine particles (such as an を between 物 and 言えば) or other additions, but these are elided.


Careful readers will already know why the grammatical structure is a bit unusual for a kotowaza: it’s because this is also poetry. This “saying” is a 5-7-5-syllable hokku from the poetic collection『芭蕉庵小文庫』 (Basho-an kobunko) by, well, famed poet Matsuo Bashō.

That said, it’s acceptable to shorten the saying to a pithier form such as 物言えば唇寒し.

The wisdom of keeping one’s mouth shut is not a new topic.

Example sentence:


(“Mama, mama, tesuto de hyakuten manten totta!” “Yoku dekita wa ne! Ureshii ne.” “Demo, Haru-chan wa” “Sonna no iwanakute ii wa yo, mono ieba kuchibiru samushi.” “E? Futsuu ni attakai kedo.”)

[“Mama, mama, I got a perfect hundred on the test!”
“Well done! I’m so happy!”
“But Haru got a—”
“No need for that. Say too much and it chills the mouth.”
“Uh? But I’m as warm as usual.”]

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Sorry about all the words


Literally: violence – word – many – guilt/sin/crime

Alternately: This is a polite, formulaic phrase to use at the close of a letter, apologizing to the recipient for being overlong, going too far with its content, or anything else that might have inadvertently given offense.

Notes: Commentary on this compound suggests a special ire for people who actually put harsh or offensive language in a message and then slap this phrase on the end like a useless band-aid… but I’m sure we can all think of that one guy who would happily fill a letter with insults without any appearance of awareness that he had done anything wrong. That’s the sort of jerk who makes you long for people who know and care enough to at least pretend not to be trying to be nasty.


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Magic Monday: AI Magic 6

Week 6: Offensive Magic

What do angry witches and wizards do? Curse people! This week we’re looking at a series of spells that are likely to give somebody a really bad day.

Cursing Wink

You inflict an obsession on your victim by meeting their eyes, after the proper arcane preparations, with a well-timed wink. The object of the obsession can be almost anything you choose, but it must be within the victim’s field of vision even as they look at your winking eye, so the spell is commonly associated with young and foolish magicians using it on the object of their own affections as a sort of love-spell. Despite its relative ease of use, this curse is rare, because the caster must also take on a tic or obsession of their own for as long as it is in effect.

Chilled Arrow

You thrust your hand into a nearby piece of ice and pull out an arrow, dart, javelin, or similar missile. Whatever this ice-bolt next touches will be struck by a wash of rising cold that condenses moisture out of the air, then freezes it solid, effectively bonding the two together. Legend claims that this spell was originally devised as a means of marking pathways, in some cold country, but now any such benign use has been subverted by the human lust for violence.

Maine Storm

Through a grueling ritual you call all of the wind and potential precipitation from as far as the eye can see – from horizon to horizon – and direct it to focus on a single area. That locale suffers from a fierce blizzard, but everything else in sight enjoys a pleasant calm. This spell is one of the reasons why weather-wizards are so keen about living on mountaintops, but rumor claims that a true master can use it to sail at unbelievable speeds by carefully pacing the blizzard at just the right distance behind their ship.

Forceful Boor

This social curse dulls its victim’s ability to feel empathy for, or even pay attention to, others, while magnifying the seeming importance of small details about the victim’s own life and thoughts, resulting in a conversational partner who becomes increasingly aggressive and tasteless over time. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this spell is that its victim quickly loses the capacity to notice their affliction, instead becoming paranoid and petulant as they shed acquaintances, alienate friends, and drive away family.

Forceful Force

This double-faceted curse may be mistaken at first for a boon. On the one hand, it multiplies the power of its victim’s every motion in a manner similar to Greater Flick (below), effectively granting them superhuman strength. But at the same time, it removes their ability to sense or regulate the force with which they move. Everything the victim picks up risks being crushed or torn; every footfall is a floor-shaking stomp; objects casually tossed become deadly missiles; anything like a hug is right out. On the plus side, involuntary reactions such as hiccups or sneezes tend to be hilarious for onlookers at a safe distance.


This cruel but subtle curse does nothing more than plant a tiny seed of doubt in the victim’s mind. Every night, the primary focus of the victim’s dreams is infected, and the victim’s attitude on that topic becomes just a bit more pessimistic. If the curse is left unbroken for too long, the victim may come to see themselves as incapable of doing any good, paralyzed with regret over the past and fear of the future.

Greater Flick

You create a tensed loop with part of your body – such as by bracing one finger against another in order to flick it – and magnify the potential energy the loop contains into a shattering concussive blast. This can place great strain on the body, and inexperienced users would be wise to only invest a little energy before using it to flick a projectile – such as shooting a marble at high speeds – but hardened physical-magic adepts have been known to release gale-force winds with a mere snap of the fingers.

Deku Greater Flick
(Side effects may include: sore muscles, bleeding, shattered bones, supervillain attention, tear-jets, and bitter rivalries with childhood friends.)
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The softest immolation

(Nakanu hotaru ga mi wo kogasu; “The silent firefly burns itself”)


Those who feel the most deeply are silent, while those who talk the most are often shallow in their thoughts and feelings. “Light cares speak, great ones are dumb.” “Still waters run deep.” In the insect world, some (especially cicadas; see below) are impressively loud… but the voiceless firefly glows as if it were burning up inside.

The saying may be used for thoughts and feelings in general, but is most often applied to love or romantic attraction. Keep in mind the traditional idealized image of the stoic samurai man, and the 大和撫子 (Yamato Nadeshiko) woman who is so silent and retiring as to be nearly nonexistent. I’m reminded of the famous assertion (apocryphally attributed to Soseki) that the best Japanese translation for “I love you” would be 月がきれいですね (tsuki ga kirei desu ne), “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it.”


We begin* with the noun 鳴く (naku), “to make an animal sound,” in imperfective form. It then takes the negative suffix ず (zu), in prenominal form as ぬ (nu), which allows it to connect to and modify the noun 蛍 (hotaru), “firefly.” Particle が (ga) marks the silent firefly as the subject of a verb; particle を (wo) marks the noun 身 (mi), “body,” “one’s self,” as its direct object. The verb in question is 焦がす (kogasu), “to burn (something).”


*A longer version of the saying begins with 鳴く蝉よりも (naku semi yori mo), “much more than the cicada, who does call.”

I have mixed feelings about this saying. On the one hand, it certainly is true that people with absolutely nothing in their hearts will overcompensate with bombastic and excessive talk about the feelings they think they’re supposed to have. (Cf. 45.) And at the same time, the more deeply-held a feeling is, the harder it can be to put into words. On the other hand, humans are social animals and communication is of vital importance to our inner and outer lives. If you take this saying as mere description, it’s fine, but anyone who takes it as prescriptive, or romanticizes silence, and avoids the work of proper expression is only hurting themselves.

Example sentence:


(Nakanu hotaru ga mi wo kogasu you ni, uchi no musume ga betsu no kurasu no otoko no ko ni kataomoi wo shiteite, mainichi sakkaa de medatsu you ni funrei doryoku shiteru rashii.”)

[“Apparently our daughter, like the fabled firefly who burns bright but doesn’t call out, has developed a one-sided crush on a boy in a different class, and has been working as hard as he can every day to stand out in soccer.”]

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A garde for vants


Literally: behead – new – strange – extract

Alternately: Completely new. Unprecedented. Often used to describe a novel idea or unconventional way of thinking.

Notes: Compare and contrast this compound with prior entry 奇想天外.

It is an error to replace 斬 with its cousin 漸 (zen) “gradual,” or 奇 with homophone 寄, “bring near.”


“Hey, what if we made… a bookshelf that wasn’t very good at holding books!” “How novel!”

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Magic Monday: AI Magic 5

Week 5: Power Play

Magic is a tool, and people tend to find ways to use tools for amusements or relatively trivial tasks; it’s not all killing curses and raising new islands out of the depths of the sea. This week’s selection is spells more or less suitable for children – with perhaps some potential for more serious effects, if conditions are right.

Divine Boom

By casting a handful of colored pebbles on the ground and examining the results, you learn where loud noises are going to occur. Generally, louder noises can be foreseen further in advance, up to about a week’s time. This hedge-magic divination is most often used to discover where lightning is going to strike as a storm approaches, but other sources of noise, such as avalanches and volcanic eruptions, may also be detected. Note that this divination only tells you when, where, and how loud a sound will occur, not what will cause it.

Soul of the Bill

By scratching an appropriate representation in the middle of a magical bigram, you imbue a tool with the essence of a bird’s beak. A hawk’s hook, a pelican’s pouch, a heron’s spear, a woodpecker’s hammer, or a duck’s… anyway, any kind of bird bill that you can imagine can lend its vital aspect to a tool as simple as a random twig, or as complex as part of an intricate clockwork. The only real limit is the limit of your ornithological knowledge.

Gate Sail

By shutting your eyes, walking toward a doorway of some kind in a specific arcane pattern of steps, and then opening your eyes just as your hands touch the frame, you send your point of view rushing forward as if propelled by a gale-force breeze. With a word, you can stop its motion, and with another word, you can bring your vision back to your actual body, but other than that the potential distance you can see is limitless. The line of sight cannot be stopped by physical obstacles such as mountains, but it can only travel in a straight line (actually a great circle around the circumference of the world), and certain magical forces could theoretically bend or capture it to their own ends. The fabled Tower of Eyes is said to have been designed around maximizing the utility of this spell.

Summon Ass

By yelling out the right combination of syllables, you call a donkey to perform basic tasks, about as well as any other donkey, until the next sunrise or sunset. It can be ridden, or given things to carry, but remember to treat it well, lest your next summoning begin with a vengeful kick.

Primal Rear

By ingesting the right infusion of herbs and inhaling the scent of the right minerals, you supercharge your flatulence for a period of about half a day, starting about half a day after the ritual. Skilled practitioners can modulate the force, the volume of sound, and other features as well. Woe betide the magician whose teenaged apprentices get their hands on this one.

Mister of Light

By weaving your hands in an intricate cat’s-cradle gesture, you transform radiance into a spray of fine water droplets. The resulting moisture and moment of shade are a perfect bit of relief on a bright summer day. Note that a light mist of liquid water is what you get from normal incoherent light spanning the entire visible spectrum: narrower bands of wavelengths (i.e. colored light) or light that has been manipulated in some way may yield unexpected results.

Fire Shop / Ice Shop

By spending a season (summer or winter, as appropriate) crafting and enchanting a little home or shrine for elemental spirits, you create a site where offerings can be made in return for flashes of elemental heat or cold, often used for household tasks such as sparking fires or freezing a bit of water to help preserve food in hot, humid weather.

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When nothing sticks

(Hashi ni mo bou ni mo kakaranai;
“Can’t be caught on a chopstick or a pole”)


A work that’s just really badly made, or a person who is completely out of control. By extension, something or somebody about which, or about whom, there’s nothing that you can do. An unsalvageable situation. The image is of trying to snag something out of arm’s reach when neither a thin but short tool like a chopstick, nor a long but thick tool like a pole, is able to catch the thing and bring it to you.


We begin with noun 箸 (hashi), “chopstick(s).” This is marked as the indirect object of a coming verb by the particle に (ni). Jumping forward just a bit, we find the noun 棒 (bou), “pole,” “staff,” marked by the same ni. Each of these noun-particle combinations is followed by particle も (mo), which may be used alone or in this doubled form to mean “also,” “and.” And at the end, direct object elided, we find the verb 掛かる (kakaru), “to hang” (as well as “to depend on,” and a startling variety of other renditions depending on context). This verb takes the imperfective form, with negative suffix ない (nai) in conclusive form.


The final negative ending may take the older form ぬ (nu) without any change in meaning, although ない seems to be significantly more common.

Apparently some people are tempted to use this saying to describe a situation where one is at loose ends, without any indication of where to go or what to do next, but this is considered an error. 箸にも棒にも掛からない is for when you technically know what needs to be done, but the doing itself just isn’t practicable.

Example sentence:


(“Inemuri shichatte, suupu sura kogashichatte, bangohan wa mou bou ni mo toku ni hashi ni mo kakaranai joutai dakara, chotto zeitaku ni gaishoku shiyokka.”)

[“I fell asleep and even the soup got burned; dinner is beyond the reach of any staff or especially any chopstick, so let’s splurge a little and go out to eat.”]

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