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So much for nau: What will we say next?

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

The end of the year is always a good time to reflect on what is, was and will be. With regard to language, one of the most stimulating things I have recently read in this respect was from an article in the journal Nihongogaku (日本語学) about a study in which Japanese university students were asked to name words and expressions they had recently started using or, what’s at least as interesting, un-using.

The “it word” that was most frequently given by the students was nau (なう). It is derived from English “now,” though as usual, its usage is, well, slightly different. It is a very popular expression on Twitter and other social network sites where people want to announce to the world what they are just doing: カラオケなう (karaoke nau, singing karaoke), すき家なう (Sukiya nau, eating at Sukiya, a gyūdon [beef on rice] chain restaurant), デートなう (dēto nau, on a date), お風呂なう (ofuro nau, having a bath), 興奮なう (kōfun nau, feeling excited) or 鬱なう (utsu nau, feeling depressed).

When the event to be reported is already past, nau doesn’t work. In such cases, many people use the term wazu (from the English “was”), another instance of new Japanese that the students in the survey mentioned. For example, 忘年会わず (bōnenkai wazu, was at the yearend-party), which might be accompanied by an inebriated picture; 馬場わず (Baba wazu, was at Takadanobaba), or perhaps captioning a photo of an empty noodle bowl, ラーメンわず (was ramen).

Completing the list of new Japanese expressions related to time is wiru (うぃる, from the English “will”), the term to describe things to be happening within the next, say, two or three hours: 成田うぃる (Narita wiru, on my way to Narita), ハワイうぃる (Hawai wiru, heading to Hawaii) and 友達ん家うぃる (tomodachinchi wiru, going to a friend’s place) are some examples of such announcements.

What is noteworthy about nau and its past and future in-laws wazu and wiru is that they are normally written in hiragana rather than using the katakana script, which would be the default choice for loanwords. This may in part be due to the fact that unlike most other borrowings from English they are not lexical but grammatical words. More or less at least.

Another reason to go for hiragana here, particularly with respect to nau, may be that people want to shake off any resemblance with the awful katakana adjective naui (ナウい), which was also derived from English “now.” For some time back in the early 1980s this was an extremely hip term to attach to all things that were in some way trendy, up-to-date, en vogue, etc. Today calling something naui is about as hip as playing with a Rubik’s Cube while wearing acid-wash jeans.

But back to our survey. Two other new expressions that the students mentioned were warota (ワロタ) and ii ne! (いいね!). The former is the Japanese equivalent to the English “lol.” It is a somewhat generously inflected form of the verb warau (笑う), to laugh. As for ii ne, it literally means something like “Good, isn’t it?” and is, in fact, not a new term at all. Its current popularity arises from its new existence as the Japanese “Like” button on Facebook.

One general point about all these new expressions — like it or not — is that they are related to some rather substantial changes in information technology. Whereas until only a couple of years ago, emails were considered the evolutionary peak in human communication, the bulk of everyday interactions today seem to be through social-networking services such as Facebook, Twitter and Line. And this, it seems, requires a somewhat different set of vocabulary.

Which brings us to the words the students in our survey reported as having recently gone out of use. Not quite as stone-aged as naui but already considered ghosts from the past were words related to mobile text messages, better known as shii mēru (Cメール) in Japanese. Once upon a time, for instance, there was 写メ, (sha-me, an abbreviated combination of shashin [写真, photo] and mēru [メール, mail]) to denote the then-revolutionary technology of attaching a photo to a text message. Another term from this era is メル友 (meru-tomo, the Japanese word for email pal). While today it seems quite normal for many people to have a large number of virtual friends they have never met in person, back in the old days of the 2000s such types of relationships appeared so extraordinary as to deserve a special designation.

What does that leave us with? Not much, maybe, except for the renewed insight that so called 流行語 (ryūkōgo, buzzwords) have a relatively short lifespan and by the time they have reached public consciousness (or newspaper articles like this, for that matter) they may already be out of fashion. So we can look forward to a whole new bunch of nows, wills and wases in 2014.