Hand me my knives

Another day, another article about those wacky words that other languages have!

While English speakers have to describe the action of laughing so much that one side of your abdomen hurts (hardly an economical phrase), the Japanese have the much more efficient expression: katahara itai.

The vast majority of the "efficiency" there is packed into the word katahara (片腹), meaning "one side of your abdomen", although really "belly" would be more natural than abdomen, but in any case, is this really more efficient than "side-splitting"? I mean, the phrases are directly comparable in terms of both literal meaning and subsequent hyperbolic devaluation, and I count three syllables in "side-splitting", and at least twice as many in katahara itai.

(Incidentally, this phrase is probably a corruption of katawara itai (傍ら痛い), "beside-pain", which is applied to a person or circumstance so shameful or pitiful that it hurts to be near him, her or it. Which isn't really relevant to how it's used today, but is kind of interesting.)

Moving on...

The Japanese have bakku-shan - a girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front.

True, but when you consider that this word (arguably pair of words) is simply a combination of English back and German schoen, "beautiful", it's not very good evidence for the idea that English isn't kooky enough.

I suppose you could argue that English speakers lack the creativity to put their words together in kooky ways like that, but come on -- even my relatively sheltered life has allowed me to hear several remarkably creative, although often quite unkind, 100% English expressions for people who are attractive from behind but not before. If there's one thing English doesn't lack, it's insults.

Popularity factor: 13


I seem to spend half my time these days bitch-slapping that damn book and all the newspaper articles some assiduous PR person got published. My first comment here expresses my exasperation.


At least the authors made the concession that English is "a rich and innovative language." Other, similar, articles and books often seem to assert that English is a sere, ascetic language only useful for uttering timeless cosmic wisdom.


Oh, and would you mind sharing some English equivalents for "bakku-shan"? I'm really getting curious.

Jason Scheirer:

"...Hawaiians, for instance, have 108 words for sweet potato, 65 for fishing nets - and 47 for banana." -- BUT HOW MANY WORDS FOR SNOW? HOW MANY?

I presume the (thankfully edited out) concluding sentence read something like "...Other languages are so different from ours! Those foreign cultures, they really are inscrutable!"

This was one of the most irresponsible, irritating fluff pieces I've read in a long while. It was also amusing. Thanks for sharing!


There's the venerable "butter face" and of course, the slightly less-known "paper bag it."



I knew I could count on you, Justin.


Benjamin Zimmer does some nice bitch-slapping himself over at Language Log.


Curious: (purported Google hits notwithstanding) have any of you actually heard or seen bakku-shan used? I haven't. bakku-bijin, yes. furonto/bakku-shan, no.

Reminds me a bit of the German-Japanese coinage for "broke" (=financially compromised) I learned from one of my profs at Tsukuba, geru-pin (from Gelt), possibly current when he was a student in the mid/late-Showa days. I occaisionally pull it out to confuse my students, since no one else is familiar with it.

(I'm with wimbrel: what English phrases did you have in mind?)


Eh, Justin got all the good ones.

Nah, I've never heard it used in conversation, but I do remember reading it somewhere. I just forget where! I asked some young folks the other day and none of them had heard it.

I guess to date from the time when "borrow a word from German" was a productive pattern for forming new Japanese words, it must be pretty old.


So was my prof. Pretty old, I mean. Always reminded me for some reason of Yasunari Kawabata, but with better control of the hair situation. Usually had a Death lit in hand but only puffed on now and then. Hope he didn't end up with his head in an oven.




I came up with "9 iron" once, for a woman that looks good from 100 yards.

This has since passed into legend.


Haha! Chinese has 背影杀手 (Back-shadow assassain) to express the same meaning (pretty from behind, face not so good).

I've spent a lot of time laughing about that one.

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