Nor trying at plying

All the songless birds can fly, though

鳴かず飛ばず
(Nakazu tobazu; “Nor crying nor flying”)

Definition:

Quietly waiting one’s chance. Doing nothing for a long time, but with the specific intention of taking action as soon as the opportunity finally comes.

Breakdown:

This simple phrase comprises two verbs, in forms that look identical but are technically different grammatically. The first verb is 鳴く (naku), a catch-all verb for animals making noise and thus translatable as “chirp,” “call,” “cry,” “bark,” etc. It appears in imperfective form with negative suffix ず (zu) in conjunctive form. The next verb is 飛ぶ (tobu), “to fly,” also in imperfective form and followed by negative suffix ず… but in this case the zu can be seen as appearing in either conjunctive or sentence-final form.

Notes:

This saying comes to us from the 史記 (Shiki), the Records of the Grand Historian. Its original Japanese form apparently prefaced the verbs by specifying that the waiting took 三年 (sannen, “three years”), and some versions flip the order of the verbs.

The story goes that in the Warring States Period, king Zhuang of Chu paid no attention to affairs of state for a full three years after taking the throne, and in fact threatened to have anyone who tried to get him to change his ways killed. Wu Ju – who was acting as regent – came to him with a riddle, asking “What kind of bird is it that doesn’t call and doesn’t fly for three years?” The king got the point, dismissed the regent, and set about doing his job.

From this we get the meaning of “doing nothing,” while the part about biding one’s time seems to have been a later addition or extension.

Example sentence:

「エド君は大学卒業から三年飛ばず鳴かずけど、機会を待っているのか、引きこもり生活に陥っているのか分からなくて、ちょっと心配だ」

(“Edo-kun wa daigaku sotsugyou kara sannen tobazu nakazu kedo, kikai wo matteiru no ka, hikikomori seikatsu ni ochiitteiru no ka wakaranakute, chotto shinpai da.”)

[“Ed hasn’t really done anything for three years since graduating college. I can’t tell whether he’s waiting for his chance or just falling into a shut-in lifestyle, so I’m kind of worried.”]

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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