Tag Archives: Japanese schools

The Linguistics of Cuss Words

On Fridays my junior high’s academic schedule is a little more laid back than the rest of the week, meaning there is time at the end of the day to visit the table tennis club before my driver arrives. A couple Fridays ago I chatted with the seventh grade girls who were there, then borrowed a paddle and began volleying with Misaki. After a little while Chihiro and Mao made their way over from the other table. They had a question about English: how does one spell “oh my God” and what does it mean? 

This didn’t completely take me aback. For reasons I haven’t yet discovered, taking the Lord’s name in vain is some of the only English students in rural Japan know. They offer it unprompted and unaware of its offensiveness to my faith. Discussion with my teammates has yielded only the theory that some popular comedian or television personality must use it. But we often suspect the students don’t know what it means. Chihiro is one of my brightest students. If she doesn’t know what it means, none of them do. 

The words both “oh” and “my”, have appeared in their lessons already. “Oh, my net!” the character in the textbook exclaims while engaging in a carnival game of scooping goldfish. In this game, which appears at most festivals, the customer purchases a certain number of special nets. Any goldfish he or she manages to scoop up and into a plastic container is theirs to take home. The catch is that the nets disintegrate after about 25 seconds in the water. And of course fish are very skittish things. Nor are they guaranteed to live through the night. Still, as long as one is strategic and isn’t too attached to the pet, it can be quite exciting. 

In other words, the seventh graders around me knew the first part of the sentence and how to spell it, but not the third word. I carefully explained the spelling to them and then translated the word. Then came the tricky part: how to explain the nuances of the word. 

See, in Japanese, they don’t really have swear words. In America we somehow invented some. In other parts of the world they insult people with curses. My Arabic teacher once told us that the worst thing you could say in Arabic was, “May your house be utterly destroyed.” My employer in Amsterdam told me that as a Dutch person he is far more offended by the vernacular of “damning” someone than he is by the words that merit censoring in American films. And a friend once told me that the worst thing one could say to a Japanese person was to tell them to disappear. In Japan, at least, because of this absence of swear words, they don’t seem to have a grid for what the concept is. Once last fall I heard a kid use the “f” word at lunch, but once I strictly told him not to, he said okay. A minute later he asked me in Japanese what the word meant. About a month later I watched a kid raise a certain finger to the turned back of a teacher. In the States I would have hauled him to the principal’s office. Here I gave him the benefit of the doubt and sufficed with a look. Upon realizing I had observed the gesture, he quickly put his hands together in penitence, bowed his head, and said “Sorry, sorry” in English. But he had a grin too, full blown during the gesture and twitching at the corner of his lips during the apology. He wasn’t acting in anger. He literally had no idea of the full meaning behind what he had just done. 

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good translation for most of the cussing. My default has been to explain that the words are rude, for being rude is a big deal in this culture of honor. The “f” word, I said to the boy at lunch, is the rudest word there is. To my seventh grade table tennis girls I said that many people in the United States use this expression to express frustration, but it is rude towards God, so Christians don’t use it, and as a Christian I don’t use it. I am fully well aware that this is an oversimplification of the issue, but even explaining that much was challenging. The girls didn’t know the word, “Christian,” and I couldn’t remember the Japanese, so I called myself a “church person.” In the end I was able to make Chihiro understand, and she in turn explained it in normal sentences to the other two. 

It isn’t just me that has a hard time translating these words for the Japanese. Once I was watching the movie The Darjeeling Express with some friends, some of whom were Japanese. Therefore, we opted to watch it with Japanese subtitles. At one point a character emits the “f” word in a stand alone capacity, not enveloped by a sentence. I immediately glanced down to see what the words on the screen read for this. ”ダメ” they said. In English letters that is “dame”, with the “da” pronounced to rhyme with “pa” and the “me” pronounced like the fifth month of the year. “Dame.” I knew this word. It simply means “bad.” We use it when students are misbehaving. Once last spring I noticed a student picking all of the beans out of his salad at lunch, and I asked him in Japanese, “Do you like beans?” “Beans are a little bad,” he replied in Japanese. It was that same word. It doesn’t carry anything close to the connotations we have for cuss words in English. 

So, cuss words or curses, which would you rather have? Personally, though I don’t cuss, I believe it is wrong to speak in anger, and I try to avoid those who do, I am rather grateful to be from a country that has ceased to employ full out curses. Recently I’ve been reading a book on the power of blessings. Blessings are all over the Bible, from the patriarchs of Genesis to the salutations of Paul’s epistles. Speaking a blessing over someone carries. I believe this and have committed to speaking blessings over people in my life. But it stands to reason that if words have that amount of power, curses can be terribly destructive. They too are words spoken over someone, a prayer for destruction, woe, and sorrow. I’d rather have cuss words tossed at me than have curses spoken over me. 

How about you? Thoughts?

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Balmy New Hampshire

In four days I’m flying to my parents’ house in the U.S. to spend Christmas with my family. I’m looking forward to how warm it will be in New Hampshire.

 For that sentence to make sense, there are a couple of things you need to know about my context:

1. Japanese schools don’t hire janitors, so at a designated time each day all of the students and faculty pause for about fifteen minutes to clean. 

2. The hallways and unused rooms in a building are not heated. 

3. The music teacher only comes on Thursdays and Fridays.

4. This is Tuesday.

5. I clean in the music room because the small numbers of students there (one kid in the music room, one in the instrument room) makes the atmosphere more conducive to conversation.

6. Today I considered cleaning in a different spot, maybe even staying in the warm teacher’s room and, I don’t know, wiping off my desk or something. As we transitioned into cleaning time, however, the vice principal walked by and opened up all of the windows. At least upstairs the windows are closed…

7. A thermometer hangs outside of the instrument room. I don’t know why, it just does. Today it read 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s 34 degrees Fahrenheit. 

8. At night I am required to turn off my heating apparatus while I sleep. This isn’t too bad, as the heater does have a timer and I tell it to turn on about an hour before I wake up. 

 My mother is frugal, and keeps the house at about 65. If she remembers to turn on the heat. I used to consider this cold bordering on arctic, but after the temperatures I deal with here in Japan, my parents’ house in New Hampshire seems positively balmy.

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