Has your son married a mouse?

Sorry for the late kotowaza post this week! Things are getting busy, and I had a heck of a time trying to come up with an example usage. Anyway, here’s a beautiful example of folk etymology run amok.

秋茄子嫁に食わすな
(Akinasubi yome ni kuwasu na; “Don’t let brides eat autumn eggplant.”)

Definition:

There are three possible meanings attributed to this saying.

  1. Eggplant harvested in early autumn is especially good. If you’re a mother-in-law, don’t waste it on that woman your son brought home; you could be enjoying it yourself. Don’t let her eat it.
  2. Autumn eggplant is a “cold”-type food (think of European humors), and could make your son’s precious wife sick. What’s worse, it has few seeds, so eating it might hinder her ability to bear you grandchildren. Don’t let her eat it.
  3. Surprise! (nezumi, meaning “rat” or “mouse”) is a taboo word for the first three days of a new year. Let’s use 嫁が君 (yome ga kimi, something like “honored bride”) as a euphemism for those animals. Also, don’t let them eat your delicious autumn eggplants; put your food up on a shelf where the rodents can’t reach it. Who could possibly fail to understand that this is what we meant?

Breakdown:

茄子 (here nasubi, often simply nasu in modern usage) is an eggplant, especially the Japanese eggplant, which is relatively long and thin compared to the rounder varieties that gave the plant its English name. (aki, “autumn”) is another noun, compounded on to let us know when the vegetable was harvested. Here you might want the topic marker (wa) or even the direct-object marker (wo), but most versions of the proverb don’t use a particle at all.

Topic taken care of, we now get to a meatier sentence-part. (yome) is a noun meaning “bride,” or by extension “wife” or “daughter-in-law.” And as it turns out, it’s also a contraction of the euphemism for mice or rats. To this noun we attach the directional marker (ni). And then comes the verb. 食う (kuu) has quite a range of meanings, but the most relevant one at the moment is “to eat.” Note also that in contemporary usage, kuu is pretty coarse, so the more neutral and more food-specific verb 食べる (taberu) is generally preferred.

In older grammar, the change from kuu to kuwa signals 未然形 (mizenkei, “the imperfective aspect”), and allows it to take the causative suffix (su) in sentence-final form. (In Japanese, grammatical causatives can be equivalent to the English “let” as well as “make.”) And to the sentence-final form we attach the negative imperative (na). So kuwasu na is either “don’t let ~ eat ~” or “don’t make ~ eat ~,” leading to the ambivalence we see in the saying’s interpretation.

Notes:

Some versions do include the particle wa after nasubi or nasu; this is fine. A number of variations on the theme replace the eggplant with something else appropriate, especially fish – saba or kamasu for the “good thing to be hoarded” version; ishimochi for the “bad thing to be avoided” version.

Example sentence:

「母さん、棚にタッパーたくさん並んでるね。どうかした?」「おやつを守るためよ。秋茄子嫁に食わすなっていうし」「母さん!」「『嫁』って鼠よ。幸子さんにはちゃんとあげるから、そんな困った顔しないで」

(“Kaasan, tana ni tappaa takusan naranderu ne. Douka shita?” “Oyatsu wo mamoru tame yo. Akinasubi yome ni kuwasu na tte iu shi.” “Kaasan!” “’Yome’ tte nezumi yo. Sachiko-san ni wa chanto ageru kara, sonna komatta kao shinaide.”)

[“Mom, that’s a lot of Tupperware on the shelf there. What’s up?” “It’s to protect the snacks. Like they say, ‘Don’t let brides eat autumn eggplant.’” “Mom!” “’Bride’ means mice! I’ll still let Sachiko have some, so don’t make that face at me.”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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