Why that two-faced rat

Well, he looks that way sometimes

首鼠両端
shu.so.ryou.tan

Literally: neck – mouse / rat – both – edge

Alternately: Caught in indecision, often between two choices. Vacillating; sitting on the fence. By extension, the phrase can also refer to someone who is gauging a situation before deciding what to do or which side to throw in with. The image is of a rodent sticking its head out of a hole and looking around as if unsure which way to go.

Notes: This is another extract from our old friend, the Records of the Grand Historian (Japanese 『史記』 = Shiki). It is considered a synonym of “last week’s” 遅疑逡巡.

Fruits Basket. It's a long story.

Protip: Do NOT use an iron to make your final decision

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Double rhyme; wastin’ time

(Imagine my horror when I realized that after a year of pushing through Pandemic Doldrums, I finally managed to completely blank out and miss last week’s yojijukugo. In “honor” of that unwonted error, I’ve chosen a compound containing the character 遅, for “lateness,” and you’ll get another one in between now and next Wednesday to make up for the one I missed.)

遅疑逡巡
chi.gi.shun.jun

Literally: slow / late – doubt / distrust – go back – go around

Alternately: Hesitation; lingering; an inability to decide.

Notes: This is a compound of compounds; 遅疑 is indecisiveness, while 逡巡 is hesitation.

A variant compound may replace 巡 with homophone 循, “follow.”

ChiGiShunJunKun

I dunno, man.

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We’ll cross that non-bridge the instant we come to it

You can’t a ford to wait!

川越して宿とれ
(Kawa koshite yado tore;
“Cross a river; take lodgings”)

Definition:

A warning to think ahead and make arrangements just in case. Alternately, an admonition to take care of difficult or annoying tasks quickly instead of putting them off. Act sooner rather than later; don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today.

Breakdown:

This phrase begins with the noun 川 (kawa), “river,” with particles elided but acting as the direct object of the verb 越す (kosu), “to cross over,” which appears in conjunctive form. This in turn points to the verb とる (toru), “to take,” in imperative form, in turn taking as its object (with particles elided) the noun 宿 (yado), “inn,” “lodgings.”

Notes:

Some versions of this saying will explicitly use at least the second elided を (wo) to mark the noun in question as the object of its following verb.

In the past, bridges were rare, and one normally crossed a river by ford or ferry. This meant that rain or wind could delay a river crossing, sometimes for days. Therefore, if you wanted to stop and rest for a while, it was recommended that you do so after crossing any relevant rivers, rather than using the stay as an excuse to put off the bother and danger of the crossing, because there was always the chance that bad weather would roll in and disrupt your plans if you waited.

Example sentence:

「祭りの晩にご馳走をすると分かっていたから、今回は数週間前から材料を揃え始めたんだ。前は失敗して、川越して宿をとれっていうのをよく勉強したからね」

(“Matsuri no ban ni gochisou wo suru to wakatteita kara, konkai wa suushuukanmae kara zairyou wo soroehajimeta nda. Mae wa shippai shite, kawa koshite yado wo tore tte iu no wo yoku benkyou shita kara ne.”)

[“I knew we’d be having a festive meal on the night of the festival, so this time I started laying in supplies several weeks in advance. Previously I’d messed up, and it drove home the lesson that you should cross the river before you rest.”]

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But what age group are riders of the storm?

No age, silly; they’re ghosts!

子供は風の子
(Kodomo wa kaze no ko;
“Children are children of the wind”)

Definition:

Children sometimes seem impervious to the cold, and will happily run around and play outdoors in weather and temperatures that tend to drive adults indoors for shelter. By extension, this becomes an assertion that children should play outside even when it’s cold and/or windy instead of being kept cooped up inside.

Breakdown:

This simple phrase begins with the noun 子供 (kodomo), “child[ren],” marked as the topic of discussion by the particle は (wa). The comment on this topic has been whittled down to a single noun phrase, comprising the nouns 風 (kaze), “wind,” and 子 (ko), “child,” joined by the associative particle の (no). One may imagine a sentence-final structure here, although it has been elided.

Notes:

This phrase comes to us from an Edo-era collection of comic tales by priest and tea-ceremony master 安楽庵策伝 (Anrakuan Sakuden), the 『醒睡笑』 (Seisuishou), considered the progenitor of the rakugo storytelling art.

The saying is sometimes followed by parallel phrase 大人は火の子 (otona wa hi no ko), “adults are children of fire,” i.e. when it gets cold outside, adults will gather around sources of heat such as fireplaces.

Example sentence:

「どんなに子供は風の子と言っても、コートも無しで、ただの洋服に帽子と手袋だけで雪の中で遊ばせるのはさすがにちょっとやりすぎじゃないですか?」

(“Donna ni kodomo wa kaze no ko to itte mo, kooto mo nashi de, tada no youfuku ni boushi to tebukuro dake de yuki no naka de asobaseru no wa sasuga ni chotto yarisugi ja nai desu ka?”)

[“No matter how much they say that children don’t feel the cold, isn’t it really too much to let them play in the snow in just clothes plus hat and gloves, without a coat?”]

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For I am the ruler of all that I spoon

杓子定規
shaku.shi.jou.gi

Literally: scoop – child – determine – measure

Alternately: Assessing everything based on the same criteria, regardless of whether this is appropriate or not. Inflexible; clinging to a single set of rules no matter what. Like trying to measure all sizes and distances by comparing them to the handle of a ladle.

Notes:

In contrast to Sunday’s kotowaza, the 杓子 in this case apparently refers specifically to a “dipper” called a 柄杓 (hishaku), which takes the form of a sort of cup at the end of a stick. While an image search suggests that modern hishaku have straight, dowel-like handles, my sources say that historical ones had bent handles, making them almost useless as measuring-sticks.

This compound may also be expanded into a normal phrase as 杓子を定規にする (shakushi wo jougi ni suru), “to make a measuring-stick out of a ladle.” 四角四面 is considered a synonym.

This phrase apparently comes to us from the writing of Tokugawa-era scholar 三浦梅園 (Miura Baien).

手桶

Nobody panic, but these guys all have different handle lengths. (I think the bucket is just for scale.) (Source.)

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Pets, utensils, and maybe even people!

猫も杓子も
(Neko mo shakushi mo;
“Even cats and serving-spoons”)

Definition:

Everyone and everything. “All that and the kitchen sink.” “Everyone and their brother.” Everything at hand, thrown together in a jumble without distinction. I get the impression that this phrase is primarily used to refer to large groups of people who share in a behavior or quality.

Breakdown:

This simple phrase consists of a pair of nouns, each followed by the emphatic particle も (mo). The first noun is 猫 (neko), “cat,” and the second is 杓子 (shakushi), a traditional serving spoon.

Notes:

杓子 is often translated as “ladle” (including by me, in a previous post) but this is a bit misleading. The original bamboo spoon appears to be more flat and paddle-like, although there’s also a design that amounts to a tiny cylindrical cup at the end of a long stick, and modern usage has expanded to include Western-style ladles as well.

The origins of this phrase are unclear. Theories have been advanced suggesting that the terms are corruptions of phonetically similar words, that both cats and serving-spoons are common and accessible in many households, that shakushi are shaped similarly to cats’ paws, or that it comes from a collection of anecdotes about the famous Zen monk Ikkyū, appropriately titled 『一休咄』 (Ikkyuu-banashi, “Tales of Ikkyū”).

Example sentence:

「ピクニックに友達を数人だけ誘ったはずなのに、いつの間にか猫も杓子も集まった賑やかなパーティーになってしまった

(“Pikunikku ni tomodachi wo suunin dake sasotta hazu na no ni, itsu no ma ni ka neko mo shakushi mo atsumatta nigiyaka na paatii ni natte shimatta.”)

[“I’m pretty sure I only invited a handful of friends to the picnic, but at some point absolutely everyone showed up and it turned into a noisy party.”]

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Cheers to that

拍手喝采
haku.shu.ka-.ssai

Literally: “musical beat” – hand – shout – gather

Alternately: Applause and cheering. Vigorous praise and approval.

Notes: 喝, in and of itself, is interesting. One dictionary I use translates it as “scold,” but a little deeper investigation suggests that this comes from Zen teaching, when students were “scolded” with sudden shouts. Meanwhile, a 喝食 (which can be pronounced kashiki, kasshiki, or katsujiki) is just a call to meals.

Sword and sheath

Supercell’s Hakushu Kassai Utaawase is the title of the opening song of one of the releases of the Katanagatari anime

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To an idiot with a hammer, EVERYTHING looks like a nail

小人閑居して不善をなす
(Shoujin kankyo shite fuzen wo nasu;
“The mean, when idle, accomplish ill”)

Definition:

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Mean-spirited or narrow-minded people will do harm when given free time and left to their own devices.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 小人 (shoujin), literally “small person,” by extension “small-minded person,” “mean person.” Particles are elided, but one may imagine the shoujin as the topic or subject of the sentence. What follows is noun 閑居 (kankyo) “idleness,” turned into a verb by attaching the verb する (suru), “to do,” in conjunctive form as して (shite, rhymes with bidet). This is followed by a second clause in an implied conditional or hypothetical relationship, beginning with the noun 不善 (fuzen), literally “not-good,” i.e. “evil deeds,” or more gently “mischief.” This is marked by the particle を (wo) as the object of the verb なす (nasu), “to accomplish,” “to do,” which appears in conclusive form. 小人 carries forward as the implied subject of the verb.

Notes:

There’s a distinct classist sort of prejudice embedded in the history of this phrase: 小人 can refer to the “common folk” and in that sense is considered an antonym of 君子 (kunshi), the “wise prince.” That said, the same could be said of English: “mean” means “cruel” now, but used to mean “common,” while even “villain” comes from a term meaning “farmhand.” It turns out that rich people deciding baselessly that they’re the good guys, while the common folk are morally deficient, is an old and widespread phenomenon. Somewhat ironic, given that the rich tend to be far more idle (and to cause far more harm on a per capita basis!) than everyone else.

In any case, in modern usage this kotowaza has lost the classist nuance, and is mostly a warning against the dangers of lazing around rather than working.

It is acceptable, but rare, to write nasu as 為す. Interestingly, kankyo was originally written as 間居, but now 閑居 is the standard rendition in Japanese. On the other hand, writing fuzen as homophone 不全 (“incomplete”) is an error; so is pronouncing 小人 as shounin.

This phrase comes to us from the Confucian text, the Great Learning (Japanese 『大学』 = Daigaku). The Japanese rendition actually says …為せば至らざる所なし (naseba itarazaru tokoro nashi), “when [the mean accomplish ill], there is no place they will not arrive.” That is, there is no limit to the bad things a bad person will do if given the time; no lengths they won’t go to. (This longer version is not used as a saying.)

Example sentence:

小人閑居して不善をなすというけど、悪徳な資本家達は引っ切り無しにパーティーやらゴルフやらの暇つぶしばかりをしているくせに、庶民のための公的支援は絶望しそうなくらいに妨害してくる」

(Shoujin kankyo shite fuzen wo nasu to iu kedo, akutoku na shihonka-tachi wa hikkiri nashi ni paatii yara gorufu yara no himatsubushi bakari wo shiteiru kuse ni, shomin no tame no koutekishien wa zetsubou shisou na kurai ni bougai shite kuru.”)

[“They say that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, but it still brings me to despair how the robber barons keep blocking public assistance in spite of the way they’re constantly just killing time with parties and golf and the like.”]

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The quick and the subtle

当意即妙
tou.i.soku.myou

Literally: appropriate – mind / idea – instant – strange / delicate

Alternately: Clever; quick-thinking. Able to handle a situation (appropriately!) as soon as it arises.

Notes: This configuration is based on the Buddhist phrase 当即妙. In this case, 位 refers to a (sometimes metaphorical) “position” rather than a mental state as 意 does, and the overall meaning is something more like “achieving enlightenment despite being a layperson.” From this came the meaning “quickly grasping the truth of a situation,” and a generalization to quick thinking or wit.

Compare near-synonym 臨機応変.

Replacing 意 with homophone 為 (“make,” “do,” “serve as” etc.) is considered an error.

Elemental horoscope chart

The quality of Gemini, according to this horoscope chart – apparently the Twins are a “flexible wind” sign. Source.

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Like a dash of cold water

年寄りの冷や水
(Toshiyori no hiyamizu; “Cold water for the elderly”)

Definition:

This phrase describes a situation in which an elderly person is doing something more aggressive or showy, or even dangerous, than is appropriate for their physical condition. The image is of someone sufficiently advanced in years that they have lost some of their resistance to the cold, who nonetheless insists on bathing in, or even (gasp) drinking*, water that isn’t heated.

Breakdown:

This relatively simple noun phrase centers on its final character, the noun 水 (mizu), “water.” This is preceded by the transitive verb 冷やす (hiyasu), “to chill [something],” in prenominal form.

Going back to the beginning, we find the noun 年 (toshi), “year.” This is followed by, and compounded with, the intransitive verb 寄る (yoru), “to approach,” or “to gather together,” also in prenominal form and acting as a noun. The compound 年寄り, perhaps prefixed with an お (o), is a polite term for “the elderly.” These two noun phrases are joined by the associative particle の (no).

Notes:

Related phrases expand the list of things that old people shouldn’t do to include tree-climbing (木登り = kinobori), walking around outdoors at night (夜歩き = yoaruki), and boasting of one’s strength (力自慢 = chikarajiman). Closer to home, hiyamizu may be written as 冷水, without the intervening kana, without any change in meaning or pronunciation.

This is the to entry in the Edo iroha karuta set. It is attributed to a kabuki play titled 『善悪両面児手柏』 (Zen’aku ryoumen konote gashiwa).

* Multiple sources call out cold water as bad for drinking – and I made fun of this, above – but there is at least hypothetically a logical explanation: one source claims that the “cold water” in question was water taken from the Sumida River during the Edo period. Untreated water (especially from an urban waterway that contains a nontrivial amount of human waste, industrial waste, and garbage) can make you very sick, after all. While it was believed that water from the middle of the river was harmless, and young people could drink it without obvious harm, elders with relatively weak immune systems were in fact encouraged to boil the water first rather than using it “cold.”

Example sentence:

「あの九十二歳のおばあさんがフルマラソンを走ってるのを見て、年寄りの冷や水だと思って不安になったけど、なんと、おばあさんが俺より速くゴールに着いて元気そうでびっくりした」

(“Ano kyuujuunisai no obaasan ga furumarason wo hashitteru no wo mite, toshiyori no hiyamizu da to omotte fuan ni natta kedo, nanto, obaasan ga ore yori hayaku gooru ni tsuite genkisou de bikkuri shita.”)

[“I saw that 92-year-old woman running the marathon and it made me worry; I thought it was too much for someone her age. But, I mean, she finished more quickly than I did, and was still full of energy; it was quite a shock.”]

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