(Another saying that features 焉. Next week we’ll have something different, I promise.)
(Niwatori wo saku ni izukunzo gyuutou wo mochiin;
“Why use a cow-cleaver to cut up a chicken?”)
There’s no need to use powerful tools, or people of great ability, on small tasks. Don’t use a huge cleaver meant for cows when preparing chicken; don’t send people of great ability and experience to do trivial tasks; don’t waste energy with overkill.
We begin with the noun 鶏 (niwatori), “chicken,” marked by the particle を (wo) as the direct object of the verb 割く (saku), “to cut up.” This seems to be in prenominal form and acting as a noun (or a nominalizer such as koto is elided), because what follows is the particle に (ni) acting as an indirect object marker on the noun phrase “cutting up a chicken” as a whole.
Moving into the next clause, we begin with interjection (or adverb) 焉んぞ (izukunzo), “how~?” “why~?”, often used to set up a rhetorical question. Next comes the noun 牛刀 (gyuutou), literally “cow sword,” i.e. a large butcher’s knife used to divide up a cow’s parts after slaughter. This is also marked by the direct-object particle を (wo), and then we have the verb 用いる (mochiiru), “to use.”
I’m not 100% certain on the grammar at this point, but my guess is that we have 用いる in imperfective form (as 用い) with particle む, which can express supposition or soften a statement by making it indirect. While the character む is generally read as mu, in this sort of usage it is often pronounced, simply, n, and in prenominal or conclusive form it may be written ん as well to reflect this. We can probably assume that, at the end of the sentence, it’s in conclusive form.
This comes from a story in the Analects in which Yanzi, one of Confucius’ disciples, is said to have been set to administer a town, where he studiously applied his master’s teachings. Confucius visited and joked with the words that became this saying, implying that the teachings being applied – or the talents of Yanzi himself – were wasted on such a small town.
This saying, or the idea it expresses, can take a variety of forms, including four-character compound 牛刀割鶏 (gyuutou kakkei) and the more specifically Japanese 大根を正宗で切る (daikon wo Masamune de kiru).
(“Suugaku no shukudai ni torikumu mae ni, niwatori wo saku ni izukunzo gyuutou wo mochiin to omotte, hitori de charenji shite mita kedo, yappari suugaku ga tokui na niichan ni oshiete morawanai to chotto muri datta….”)
[“Before taking on my math homework I thought great talent would be wasted on small problems, so I tried tackling it on my own, but you’re really good at math and I guess I can’t do it without your help after all…. ” (to the speaker’s older brother)]