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This year’s buzzwords show how Japanese is evolving

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Last month I shelled out ¥2,980 for my 2014 edition of 現代用語の基礎知識 (“Gendai Yogo no Kiso Chishiki”, “Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words”). It’s a 1,660-page monster that’s well worth the outlay, and this year publisher Jiyu Kokumin-sha, as an extra bonus, included a 74-page booklet that compiled the yearly top 流行語 (ryūkōgo, buzzwords) from over the past three decades and other useful reference information, such as lists of Japanese Nobel Prize winners and recipients of the 国民栄誉賞 (Kokumin eiyo-shō, People’s Honor Award), the most recent of whom were former sumo grand champion Taiho (posthumously) and former Yomiuri Giant baseball superstars Shigeo Nagashima and Hideki Matsui.

As soon as I get the new book home I normally flip the pages to the subsection on youth slang and patois. The list of teen lingo — which, alas, I seldom have the opportunity to demonstrate among my middle-aged peers — is broken down by 行動 (kōdō, activity); 気持ちと口グセ (kimochi to kuchiguse, feelings and favorite expressions); 遊び (asobi, play); 人間関係と日常生活 (ningen kankei to nichijō seikatsu, human relationships and daily living); ファッション (fasshon, fashion); 性 (sei, sex); and 食 (shoku, food).

Japan’s youths tend to spin off new words in a number of recognizable patterns. Many, for instance, are made by reversing syllables; shortening and combining words; and modifying words of foreign origin into Japanese verbs.

Here are some featured in the 2014 edition:

• 噛み付く (kamitsuku, to bite or snap at, but here meaning [in a figurative sense] to complain).

• 借りパク (karipaku, to borrow and not return, from kariru [to borrow] and pakuru [slang for to filch or steal]).

• 鬼畜 (kichiku, used in wartime to refer to the enemy, it has been dusted off and revived to refer to a person with no empathy, or who is judgmental).

• 盛る (moru; to exaggerate or for a female to apply heavy makeup).

• 折れる (oreru, to break concentration).

• パニクる (panikuru, to fly into a tizzy, from the English “panic”).

• チキン (chikin, [pronounced ch'KIN], chicken, i.e., a person who scares easily or is lacking in courage).

• 即ハメ (sokuhame, a one-night stand [literally, instant sex]).

• モノホン (mono-hon, the real thing, produced by reversing the syllables of honmono [real thing]. Its opposite is パチモン [pachimon, of uncertain derivation, but something spurious or phony]).

• オーキャン (ōkyan, short for オープン キャンパス [ōpun kyanpasu, open campus]; also, there’s サマセ, [samase, summer session]).

• プチプラ (puchipura, petite price, something pretty but cheap).

• ブーサン (būsan, boots combined with sandals).

• リクラブ (rikurabu, made by combining “recruit” with “love,” means love that is motivated by job-hunting activities).

Which brings us to the 2013 流行語大賞 (Ryūkōgo-taishō, the Buzzword Grand Prix), announced at a gala event in Tokyo on Dec. 2. This year was unprecedented in that four words received the top award. One was 倍返し (Bai-gaeshi, literally, double payback), popularized in last summer’s TBS TV drama “Hanzawa Naoki.” At the conclusion of the episodes Hanzawa, the protagonist, would blurt out “Bai-gaeshi!” vowing to extract vengeance on his tormentors, as it were, in spades. In the course of the drama’s run, the scale of revenge exponentially inflated to 十倍返し (jūbai-gaeshi, 10-fold) and then 百倍返し (hyakubai-gaeshi, 100-fold).

The other three winners included 今でしょう (Ima deshō, Now, right?), which was the answer to a self-posed question from university exam prep-school teacher Hayashi Osamu, who asked, “When are you going to do it?” Which prompted the answer, “Now, right?”

Another popular word was じぇ、じぇ、じぇ (Je, je, je), an exclamation of surprise in rural Iwate dialect, frequently voiced by actress Rena Nonen during episodes of NHK’s popular morning drama “Ama-chan.”

Finally, charming presenter Christel Takigawa’s pledge of お・も・て・な・し (o-mo-te-na-shi, selfless hospitality) was persuasive enough to help Tokyo win out over Madrid and Istanbul as host of the 2020 Olympic Games.

One of the 2013 nominees that didn’t win was フライングゲット (furaingu getto, flying get), an amusing example of wasei eigo (Japanese English) meaning to purchase a manga, music CD or other item ahead of its official sales launch.

If you’re interested in the staying power of annual buzzwords, publisher Jiyu Kokumin-sha’s list of top 10 words over the past 30 years should be enlightening. In no particular order, they include:

• 安全神話 (anzen shinwa, the myth of safety, 1995). That year the Hanshin earthquake combined with the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by a doomsday cult to shake people’s perceptions that Japan was a safe country.

• オヤジギャル (oyaji gyaru, 1990). Young women who affect the behavior of middle-aged men, drinking beer and speaking in a coarse style.

• 格差社会 (kakusa shakai, unequal society in terms of income gap, 2006).

• がんばろうKOBE (Gambarō KOBE, give it your best shot, Kobe, 1995) words of encouragement after the city was severely damaged in the Hanshin Earthquake.

• キャバクラ (kyabakura, cabaret club, 1985).

• 自分で自分をほめたい (Jibun de jibun wo hometai, I want to allow myself to compliment myself, 1996). Stated by women’s marathon medalist Yuko Arimori.

• 同情するならカネをくれ (Dojō suru nara kane wo kure, if you feel sorry for me then give me money, 1994). From the TV drama “Ie Naki Ko,” about a spunky homeless girl played by Yumi Adachi.