Words, words, words

千言万語
sen.gen.ban.go

Literally: thousand – say – ten thousand – word

Alternately: Very many words. A vast number of words. Really quite a very large number of words indeed. Speech or writing that is long-winded, meandering, overdone, prolix, repetitive, tedious, verbose, and/or, well, wordy.

Notes: 千 and 万 are both common examples than can simply mean “a very large number or amount” rather than one or ten thousand specifically. There are quite a few yojijukugo that use them, either in the form 千A万B as above, or in the form XY千万, to express “a whole lot of [something].”

In this particular compound, 万 can also be pronounced as man without being strictly wrong, but ban is far more common and is the preferred reading.

This phrase comes to us from the poetic words, I mean works, of late Tang era poet Zheng Gu (鄭谷, Japanese Teikoku).

SenGenBanGoHon

An elementary-level Chinese textbook, appropriately enough!

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In my outrage, I caught dozens of flies

開いた口が塞がらない
(Aita kuchi ga fusagaranai; “The open mouth does not close”)

Definition:

To be in a state of utter shock, especially in response to someone’s condition, attitude, words, or behavior. To be left speechless, with one’s mouth hanging open. Agape (but not in the Greek sense).

Breakdown:

We begin with the verb 開く (aku), “to open [a thing],” “to have one’s [mouth/eyes] opened,” appearing in a form that is technically past tense, but which functions in this case as a prenominal. This allows it to attach to and modify the noun 口 (kuchi), “mouth,” which is marked by the particle が (ga) as the subject of a sentence. The predicate for this subject consists entirely of the verb 塞ぐ (fusagu), “to block,” “to shut,” in imperfective form and taking the negative ending ない (nai) in conclusive form, which wraps the sentence up nicely.

Notes:

While the cause of the shock can be something good, bad, or extreme-but-neutral, it seems to be most commonly used in response to something negative, especially bad behavior.

This comes to us from a line in a jōruri rendition of the famous 『忠臣蔵』 (Chuushingura) story – the tale of the 47 ronin.

Example sentence:

「何度も同じ嘘をついて、バレてるのに、今回もまたつくのかよ?開いた口が塞がらないな!」

(“Nando mo onaji uso wo tsuite, bareteru no ni, konkai mo mata tsuku no ka yo? Aita kuchi ga fusagaranai na!”)

[“You’ve told the same lie over and over again, and everyone knows it’s a lie, but here you go again? I’m just dumbfounded!”]

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On words, the eating thereof

If it happens too often, you might want some grains of salt.

前言撤回
zen.gen.te-.kkai

Literally: before – say – withdraw – revolve

Alternately: “I take it back.” A phrase that negates a previous phrase, opinion, or comment.

Notes: This “practical” yojijukugo doesn’t appear as such in many dictionaries; it appears to be parsed less as a “four character compound” than as “a compound phrase that happens to have four characters.”

It seems that while this phrase can be used in a straightforward way when you’ve said or thought something that you no longer agree with, it can also take on an ugly connotation. A “take-back” arising from sincere regret is okay, but slyly disavowing something awful that you still support for the sake of a moment’s convenience can make the same phrase into a cheap and dishonest dodge.

ZenGenTeKkaiShinji

Shinji regrets giving Asuka the benefit of the doubt – from 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン Volume 4, by Yoshikyuki Sadamoto

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As surprising as a plink to the coo

鳩が豆鉄砲を食ったよう
(Hato ga mamedeppou wo kutta you;
“Like a pigeon got shot by a pea-shooter”)

Definition:

Dazed; amazed; puzzled; left staring in shock by something sudden or completely unexpected. A bit like a deer in headlights, except more like a pigeon that has been bopped by a relatively harmless but still unignorable low-energy projectile.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 鳩 (hato), “pigeon,” “dove,” marked as the subject of a clause by the particle が (ga). Next comes compound noun 豆鉄砲 (mamedeppou), literally “bean iron cannon” – in other words, a pea-shooter. This in turn is marked by the particle を (wo) as the object of the verb 食う (kuu), literally “to eat,” or in this case the more figurative “to receive” (with a negative connotation), and finally the noun よう (you, rhymes with “go”), “appearance,” “similar to,” etc. The final-position noun means that this saying is actually a noun phrase rather than a complete sentence.

Notes:

The phrase can be rearranged into 豆鉄砲を食った鳩のよう (mamedeppou wo kutta hato no you), “like a pigeon that got shot by a pea-shooter.” It can also be contracted to just 鳩に豆鉄砲 (hato ni mamedeppou), “a pea-shooter to a pigeon.” But in every case, make sure you don’t lose the 豆. The pigeon is extremely startled, but it’s not dead.

Viewers of certain genres of anime will be familiar with くらう (kurau), which has a similar meaning to 食う’s usage in this saying. A number of my sources stress that no, the pigeon is not eating the pea-shooter, nor its ammunition (at least not yet). Rather, it “ate” a hit, and is still recovering from the shock.

Example sentence:

プレゼントを開けて豆鉄砲を食った鳩のように目を丸くして無言になった男の子は、ガッカリしているのか、それとも喜びのあまり声がでないのか、僕にはしばらく分からなかった。

(Purezento wo akete mamedeppou wo kutta hato no you ni me wo maruku shite mugon ni natta otoko no ko wa, gakkari shiteiru no ka, sore tomo yorokobi no amari koe ga denai no ka, boku ni wa shibaraku wakaranakatta.)

[After opening the present, the boy was left wordless and wide-eyed as a stunned pigeon. Whether he was disappointed, or unable to speak in overwhelming joy, was not clear until later.]

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Selfless love

Like, literally selfless and universal

兼愛無私
ken.ai.mu.shi

Literally: already / and – love – no – self / I

Alternately: Equal affection for all people, without drawing lines between oneself and the Other. Universal love without bias or petty tribalism.

Notes: A kundoku variant – that is, one that sounds a bit less like pure Chinese and more like regular Japanese – goes 兼愛私無し (ken’ai watakushi nashi) but remains unchanged in meaning. Synonyms include 一視同仁.

That said, this compound does come to us from Chinese; specifically, from the writings of Zhuangzi (荘子, Japanese Sou shi), a.k.a. Zhuang Zhou, a Warring States era Taoist philosopher whom we’ve met before.

KenAiMuShiPaper

It’s not about erasure of identity, just that identity and its politics shouldn’t get in the way of love.

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Lessons from Toad Hall

柳に雪折れなし
(Yanagi ni yukiore nashi; “The willow is not broken by snow”)

Definition:

Gentleness and flexibility may appear weak, but are actually stronger than hardness. The supple, drooping branches of a willow tree aren’t as impressive as the rigid branches of an oak or pine, but neither do they break under heavy snowfall. Knowing how to give makes you strong, while obsessing over “toughness” actually makes you easier to break.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 柳 (yanagi), “willow tree,” followed by the directional marker に (ni), “to,” here filling a sort of attributive role. Next comes the noun 雪折れ (yukiore), comprising noun 雪 (yuki), “snow,” and verb 折れる (oreru), “to bend,” “to break,” in conjunctive form and acting as a noun. This noun is followed and modified by the adjective なし (nashi), “not,” in conclusive form.

Notes:

Several variants replace 雪 with 風 (kaze), “wind.” In one case this is the only change, but there seem to be quite a few different versions, including the brief 柳に風 (yanagi ni kaze, “a wind in the willow”) and, equally, 風に柳 (kaze ni yanagi, “a willow in the wind”).

Example sentence:

「若い頃は、命を差しおいてでも自分の理想を大切に守るべきだと思っていたけど、長年に渡る世の中の観察の末に、柳に雪折れなし臨機応変に対応する姿勢の方が良い結果を招くということが分かってきた」

(“Wakai koro wa, inochi wo sashioite de mo jibun no risou wo taisetsu ni mamoru beki da to omotteita kedo, naganen ni wataru yo no naka no kansatsu no sue ni, yanagi ni yukiore nashi, rinki ouhen ni taiou suru shisei no hou ga ii kekka wo maneku to iu koto ga wakatte kita.”)

[“When I was young I thought that you needed to defend your ideals even if it meant laying down your life. But after long years of observing how the world works, I’ve come to see that the willow that bends does not break – that you get better results with a stance that adapts itself as necessary to circumstances.”]

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A long and winding… gut

羊腸小径
you.chou.shou*.kei

Literally: sheep – intestines – small – path / diameter

Alternately: A small and winding mountain road. A path that twists and turns like (sheep) intestines.

Notes: This is another compound of compounds. 小径 (“path,” “lane”) on its own may also be read as komichi, while 羊腸 on its own means not only “sheep intestines” but also “meandering,” “zigzag.”

Note that another bit of nature that can indicate a meandering or zigzag shape is tsudzura, the kudzu vine (葛) and that a winding road can also be described as tsudzuraori (葛折り) – which can be written, without any change in pronunciation, as the yojijukugo 九十九折 – literally “ninety-nine bends.” Another near-synonym is 紆余曲折.

* Keep in mind that all three of these rhyme with “dough,” not “shoe.”

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‘Bring it on’ is broad, not long

Alas, “deep” doesn’t rhyme.

何でも来いに名人なし
(Nandemo koi ni meijin nashi;
“There are no masters of Whatever May Come”)

Definition:

A person who is ready for anything, is not a master at anything. You can be a generalist or an expert, but not both. “A Jack of all trades is a master of none.”

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun / question word 何 (often nani, here contracted to nan). This generally translates into English as “what,” but here we see it joining up with particle でも (demo), “but,” “even, “ etc. to form an expression meaning “whatever,” “anything.” Next comes the verb 来る (kuru), “to come,” in imperative form. The above act together as a single noun phrase indicating “[the kind of person who is] ready for anything.”

This noun phrase is marked by the particle に (ni), in a sort of attributive function, as the thing “to” which the following clause applies: the noun 名人 (meijin) – literally “name person,” figuratively “master,” “expert,” followed and modified by the adjective なし (nashi), “not,” in conclusive form.

Notes:

A pithier synonym is 多芸は無芸 (tagei wa mugei), “many arts is no arts” or “versatility is equal to a lack of talent.”

It’s acceptable to write 何 in kana as なん, but for whatever reason none of the versions of this that I’ve seen write なし in kanji as 無し.

Example sentence:

「子供の時、映画の影響からか、科学者なら相対論からクローンの作成まで何でもかんでも解ってるんだと思い込んでたんだ。だから、大学生になって、何でも来いに名人なしというのが現実で、分野を決めなきゃだって言われたときは、ショックだったんだ。そのショックも成長に不可欠なことなんだろうな」

(“Kodomo no toki, eiga no eikyou kara ka, kagakusha nara soutairon kara kuroon no sakusei made nandemo kandemo wakatteru nda to omoikondeta nda. Dakara, daigakusei ni natte, nandemo koi ni meijin nashi to iu no ga genjitsu de, bunnya wo kimenakya datte iwareta toki wa, shokku datta nda. Sono shokku mo seichou ni fukaketsu na koto nan darou na.”)

[“Maybe it was because of what I saw in movies, but when I was a kid, I thought that scientists knew about absolutely everything, from relativity to cloning. So it was a shock when I got into college and they told me that in actuality there are no experts in Everything, so I’d need to choose a field. Maybe that sort of shock is an indispensable part of growing up.”]

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“Under a dictatorship, a nation ceases to exist.”

-Wole Soyinka

残酷非道
zan.koku.hi.dou

Literally: remainder – cruel / unjust – un- – road / morals

Alternately: Unconscionable cruelty. Inhuman brutality.

Notes: We’ve seen this before.

BLM

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How about a Marshall Field’s?

(There’s a spelling-only pun in here that I didn’t notice until the post was almost entirely written; bear in mind that the Land of Nu sides with those who stand against fascism.)

児孫のために美田を買わず
(Jison no tame ni biden wo kawazu;
“For the sake of your descendants, do not buy good fields.”)

Definition:

If you leave your children a large and fruitful inheritance, then they don’t need to work for their living and tend to end up leading heedless lives without needing to actually learn about the world or the value of real work. This ultimately harms them, so it’s actually best for your family to avoid building up and leaving behind a fortune.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 児孫 (jison), literally “children and grandchildren,” more figuratively “descendants.” The associative particle の (no) connects this to the noun ため (tame), “benefit,” “sake.” This combines with directional particle に (ni) to create the set phrase ~のために (~no tame ni), “for the sake of ~” or “to the benefit of ~.”

The thing you do for the sake of your descendants is an independent clause that begins with the noun 美田 (biden, which sounds like “bee then”), literally “beautiful field,” more figuratively “fertile field.” The particle を marks this as the direct object of the verb 買う (kau), “to buy,” which appears in imperfective form and takes the negative suffix ず (zu), which appears in conclusive form.

Notes:

A more common term for “descendants” would be 子孫 (shison), but that is not used in this saying.

This phrase comes to us from a poem sent by Saigō Takamori, a samurai who was instrumental in the Meiji Restoration, to Ōkubo Toshimichi, one of his peers. It may be notable that while benefiting from a hereditary title and position himself, he cooperated with the widespread social reforms that the new imperial government implemented in the early days of the Meiji era.

Example sentence:

「財産の九分九厘を慈善活動に費やしたいと言っているビル・ゲイツ夫妻は児孫のために美田を買わぬつもりかもしれないが、自分の子供達にそれぞれ一千万ドルずつ残す予定らしい」

(“Zaisan no kubukurin wo jizen katsudou ni tsuiyashitai to itteiru Biru Geitsu fuufu wa jison no tame ni biden wo kawanu tsumori kamoshirenai ga, jibun no kodomo-tachi ni sorezore issenman doru zutsu nokosu yotei rashii.”)

[“In saying that they want to spend 99% of their wealth on charity, Bill and Melinda Gates likely believe that they’re helping their descendants by not leaving a fortune, but supposedly they still plan to leave each of their children ten million dollars.”]

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