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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...
Ding, ding, ding!
バカ and 畜生 (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 - sorry) from English four-letter words — starting with the fact バカ and 畜生 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
Readings: しか、 か、ロク
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 or 破家 for example, but today the accepted kanji is 馬鹿. These are all 当て字 adaptations. 当て字 means the kanji is used for its sound irrespective of the meaning.
Origin of the Word
Translation, Vocabulary, & Notes
バカ is written as “horse and deer”. While there are many theories in regard to its origin, let me talk about a theory which says that it originated in an ancient Chinese story.
There was a very powerful minister in the government during the Qin dynasty. He conducted one experiment in order to find out who were his enemies and who were his supporters. He brought a deer to the emperor and said, “I brought you a very rare horse.”
The emperor asked, “Isn’t that a deer?”
Then, the minister said to people around him, “Is this a horse or a deer?”
The people who were afraid of his political power said, “That is a horse, sir.”
However, according to the story, the ones who were not afraid of him said, “That is a deer!” and laughed at him.
Later, those people ended up being executed. It is said that acting foolishly or speaking foolish things is called 馬鹿 because of this story. Would you call a deer a horse if it were you?
- 語源 etymology; origin of a word
- バカ（馬鹿）stupid; foolish; idiot; dumb; dull; slow
- バカは as for バカ
- 馬と鹿 horse and deer [馬 (horse); 鹿 (deer)]
- と書きます is written as (horse and deer) [literally, “(Japanese people) write as (horse and deer)”; と (quotation marker); 書きます from 書く (to write)]
- 語源は as for its origin; regarding its origin [語 (word); 源 (origin; source; root)]
- いろいろな説 various theories; many theories [いろいろな (various); 説 (theory; view; opinion; doctrine)]
- がある~ exist; there are ~
- のです [の (explanatory particle) which has a nuance of “the case” as in, “it is the case that many theories exist”; がありますが would work here as well]
- が while ~ [this が is used as a conjunction after general information has been stated before going into further detail on the same subject. It can be translated as simply “and” or “while” depending on the context.]
- 中国の Chinese; of China; in China [中国 (China)]
- 古いお話 old story [古い (old); お (polite prefix); 話 (story)]
- 故事 historical event; ancient event; legend; folklore [also written as 古事; 古 (old); 事 (matter)]
- になっている is (the origin); has been (the origin) [literally, “has become”; になって te-form of になる (to become ~); いる indicates a continuing state where one old story has been the origin]
- ~という説 theory that ~ [という (serving as “that” in that- clause) is a connector between the modifying sentence and the noun: 説]
- (~を)ご紹介しましょう (I) will introduce (to you) ~; (I) will talk about ~; (I) shall talk about ~ [ご (honorific prefix); 紹介し masu-stem of 紹介する (to introduce); ましょう (volitional of ます) to indicate intention]
- 秦の時代 period of Qin dynasty (905 – 206 BC) [秦 (dynasty of Qin) which is pronounced “shin” in Japanese; 時代 (period; epoch; era; age)]
- たいへん very [とても would also work and is interchangeable, but たいへん has a more formal nuance than とても]
- 力の強い powerful [common phrase; literally, “power is strong”; 力 (force; strength) here means his “political power”; note: 力が強い is the same thing. の can be used within a subordinate clause when the noun is not the main topic of a sentence. The main topic here is 力の強い大臣, and 力 is the topic within the modifying phrase (力の強い).]
- 大臣 a minister (of the government)
- (が)いました there was [from (が)いる (to exist)]
- 自分の敵 his enemy [自分の (his own); 敵 (enemy)]
- と from; between ~ and … [used as a part of “AとBを見分ける”(to tell A from B; to distinguish between A and B)]
- 味方 ally; supporter
- AとBを見分ける (to tell A and B apart; to distinguish between A and B) [compound word; 見 (to see; masu-stem of 見る) + 分ける (to divide); FYI: many compound verbs are made in the form of “masu-stem verb + verb”]
- ~ために for the purpose of (doing ~); in order to (do ~) [ため (benefit; advantage); に (for) indicates purpose]
- あること a certain thing; one thing [ある (certain ~; one ~; some ~) used as prefix; こと (thing; matter)]
- (を)しました did ~ [past polite of する (to do)]
- 鹿 deer
- 皇帝 emperor
- の前に to (the emperor) [literally, “to in front of (the Emperor)”; の (of); 前 (front); に (to)]
- 連れてきて brought (deer) and …[te-form of 連れてくる (to bring) used as conjunctive; 連れて te-form of 連れる (to take (someone) with; to bring (someone) along) and 連れる is almost always (not always) used in te-form with auxiliary verbs as in 連れてくる or 連れていく]
- 珍しい rare; unusual; novel
- 馬 horse
- (を)連れてまいりました brought (a horse) [まいりました is humble and very polite for くる (連れてきました)]
- ~と言ったのです said that ~ [と (quotation marker) used for “that ~”; 言った (said); の (explanatory particle) which adds emphasis, sort of like an exclamation marker. と言いました (said that ~) can work as well, but it lacks emphasis in comparison; note: の, as an explanatory particle, also turns the preceding phrase into a noun state like the nominalizing particle の does, therefore です copula follows it.]
- (それは)ではないのか？ (isn’t that) a deer? [で (te-form or indicative form of だ/です); は (topic marker); ない (not); の (explanatory particle) which means “the case” (the case that it’s a deer); か (question marker)]
- と (quotation marker)
- 大臣 the minister
- 尋ねました asked [past of 尋ねる (to ask; to inquire); 聞きました would work here as well, but 尋ねる is more formal or literary compared to 聞く (to ask; to hear)]
- そこで and then
- 周りの人たち people around; people who are there [周り (surrounding) + の (modifier) + 人たち (people)]
- 聞きました asked
- これは as for this
- 馬ですか？ is (it) a horse?
- それとも or; either that or
- 鹿ですか？ Is (it) a deer?
- 大臣の力 the minister’s (political) power
- (を)恐れている者たち people who are afraid of (his political power) [恐れて te-form of 恐れる (to fear; to be fearful); いる indicates the state that people are fearful; 者たち (people) sounds stiff and old-fashioned compared to 人たち or 人々, which is appropriate here because 者たち here probably means other ministers and their subordinates who are most likely military in nature.]
- でございます is (a horse) [more polite version of です copula]
- (と)答えましたが while (the people who are fearful of) answered ~ [答えました from 答える (to answer); が (either “while ~” or “but” works here)]
- 恐れない者たち the ones who are not afraid [恐れない (negative of 恐れる); 恐れていない者たち also works as well]
- と言って said (“that’s a deer”) and… [言って te-form of 言う (to say) used as conjunction]
- 笑ったそうです it is said that (they) laughed [笑った past of 笑う (to laugh); そう (they say that ~; it is said that ~; supposedly) indicates second-hand information]
- あとで later
- この者たち these people
- 処刑されてしまいました ended up executed [処刑されて from 処刑される (to be executed) which is passive of 処刑する (to execute); しまいました from しまう which indicates negative situations (unfortunate, unfavorable, regrettable), and it can also be used in neutral or positive situations where it indicates a situation to be “unexpected” or “surprising”. In this case, しまう is used to indicate the outcome to be both “unfortunate” and “unexpected”.]
- この故事から from this old story
- 愚かなこと foolish things [愚かな (foolish); こと (things)]
- (を)したり doing (foolish things) or … [し masu-stem of する (to do); たり (and/ or); construction: conjugate a verb into plain past and add り after it. (する→した→したり); note: たり becomes だり depending on the past form of the verb.]
- 言ったりする saying (foolish things) [たり is used often in the form of “~したりする“ (to do things like ~ing), or used multiple times as in “~たり ~たりする”(to do things like ~ing or ~ing)]
- こと [nominalizing particle which turns the preceding phrase (愚かなことをしたり、言ったりする) into a noun state so the phrase can be the direct object for the following verb: いう]
- 「馬鹿」というようになった had (have) become to call 馬鹿 [という (to call); ようになった from ようになる (to become to do ~; to start doing ~); よう means “way”, “state”, “circumstance”, “situation”, “condition” or “appearance”; ~になる (to become ~)]
- といいます they say that ~; it is said that ~ [literally, “(they) say that ~”; very similar to ~ そうです(だ) which indicates second hand information]
- あなたなら if it were you [あなた (you); なら (if ~; if it is the case that ~, suppose that ~, provided that ~)]
- 「鹿」を「馬」と言いますか？ Would you call a deer a horse? [を marks indirect object; と (as (a horse))]
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 (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, 「親バカ」
Now, I was probably an upper beginner at that time. I didn't know many words, but I knew 親 meant "parent" and バカ meant "fool". I didn't know there was an expression 「親バカ」 which simply means "parents who are obsessed with their child."
His parents were there enthusiastically supporting him. 「親バカ」 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 親 (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!