August 28, 2022

Origin of Japanese Words – バカ Fool; idiot

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Before we get started, I just want to manage expectations. No one really knows the origin of バカ, but I do have a fun story that sounds plausible. It isn't, but it sounds plausible.

Are there Curse Words in Japanese?

It is often said Japanese has no swear words. I suppose it depends how you interpret "swear words." You can be every bit as rude in Japanese as you can in English just by adjusting your level of politeness. But ...

Quick! Name a Japanese swear word...

Umm.. バカ?

Ding, ding, ding!

バカ and 畜生(ちくしょう)  (literally, "beast") might be the closest things to "swear words" in Japanese.

But wait. Don't loving mothers sometimes look at their children doing something silly and say, "バカだね" or "おバカさんですね"?

With that in mind, is バカ really a swear word? Well, it depends. Japanese four-letter words are a totally different beast (畜生(ちくしょう) - sorry) from English four-letter words — starting with the fact バカ and 畜生(ちくしょう) are technically two-character words. (Sorry again. This morning's coffee is just starting to kick in.)

Meaning of the Kanji

First, let's break down the kanji:

Readings: うま、 ま、バ

Meaning: horse


Readings: しか、 か、ロク

Meaning: deer

Yes, the kanji for バカ is "horse deer." We'll get to that in a minute, but as I'm sure you know, it is usually written in kana (usually katakana).

Historically, there were a few other kanji adaptions: 莫迦(ばか) or 破家(ばか) for example, but today the accepted kanji is 馬鹿(ばか). These are all ()() adaptations. ()() means the kanji is used for its sound irrespective of the meaning.


Origin of the Word










Translation, Vocabulary, & Notes

Final Notes:

ちなみに (by the way), the Chinese story is probably not the origin of バカ. Apparently, the Chinese pronunciation wouldn't be anything close to "baka," but still, it's a good story.

There are many common words with バカ in them. Let me close by illustrating one useful word with a true story.

It was around 1999. A much younger Clay was a JET Programme teacher in Fukui prefecture, and it was our school's 運動会(うんどうかい) (sports festival).

I was talking with one of my students—a good kid who studied hard and was always polite—when he pointed to the stands. I looked and saw his two parents waving frantically at him. 「がんばれ!OOくん!」 (You can do it! (name of kid)), they shouted.

He laughed and said, 「(おや)バカ」

Now, I was probably an upper beginner at that time. I didn't know many words, but I knew (おや) meant "parent" and バカ meant "fool". I didn't know there was an expression 「(おや)バカ」 which simply means "parents who are obsessed with their child."

His parents were there enthusiastically supporting him. 「(おや)バカ」 has a loving feel to it. He was lightly making fun of their enthusiasm but in a loving way.

In my mind, however, I had just heard a student call his parents fools. It wasn't rocket science. It was (おや) (parent) plus バカ (fool).

Seeing my misunderstood and pale face, he quickly tried to explain. My Japanese wasn't good enough for his hurried explanation, and I left shaking my head. It wasn't until I got home and opened my dictionary that my faith in that good kid was restored. So sorry, OOくん!

Language misunderstandings can be バカバカしい (absurd; ridiculous; silly; foolish) but, oh, so educational!

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