And be clean in word and deed.
(Sonae areba urei nashi; “If yes prep, no worries”)
If you habitually take the time and effort to make sure you’re prepared for a worst-case scenario, then you’ll be a lot better off if and when such a scenario comes to pass. Forearmed is forearmed. When you succeed at preparing, you are preparing to succeed.
We begin with the verb 備える (sonaeru), “to equip,” “to prepare,” in conjunctive form.* This allows it to act as a noun and, particle elided, it takes the verb ある (aru), “to exist,” “to have,” in imperfective form and followed by the hypothetical suffix ば (ba), “if” or “when.” The following independent clause comprises the noun 憂い* (urei), “trouble,” “distress,” “sorrow,” and the adjective なし (nashi), “[does] not [exist]” in conclusive form.
This evergreen bit of advice comes to us from Chinese antiquity, specifically the Book of Documents (Chinese Shujing, Japanese 『書経』 = Shokyou), a 3,000-year old collection of rhetoric with the distinction of being one of the ancient Chinese “Five Classics.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that we’ve seen synonyms before.
There’s a relatively high level of orthographic variation to this saying. ある may be written as 有る and なし may be written as 無し, of course, but also urei may be written as 患い. None of these changes affects the meaning or pronunciation. Note, however, that replacing 備え with homophone 供え, “offering [to a god],” changes the meaning and is considered an error.
* Classically, the original verb for sonaeru is 備ふ (sonau), meaning “to gather [something] together without anything missing.” The conjunctive form then becomes 備へ, which orthographic shift later renders as 備え. Similarly, urei was originally the verb 憂ふ (ureu), “to worry,” “to grieve”; this takes the conjunctive form 憂ひ to act as a noun, and eventually becomes 憂い. Note that unlike 備ふ, which lives on today as the verb 備える, 憂ひ only seems to appear in modern usage as a noun.
(“Raishuu no ryokou no tame ni kouza kara genkin wo hikidashite oku tsumori. Sonae areba urei nashi to iu kara sa.”)
[“I’m going to take some cash out of my bank account for next week’s trip. More prepared is less worried, as they say!”]
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