As a Japanese compound word-builder, the kanji suffix 的 (teki, -like) is a remarkably productive workhorse. In addition to serving in hundreds of compounds listed in Japanese-English kanji dictionaries, 的 is also heavily featured — for better or worse — in the patois of young Japanese.

When used properly, 的 is generally added to the end of noun-bases to form adjectives, and means “like” or “related to” what is denoted in the base, similar to the English “-ic” (e.g., hero + ic) or “-al” (e.g., logic + al). Most commonly appearing at the end of three-kanji compounds, for example, 機械的, (kikai-teki [kikai + teki, machine + like], mechanical), 的 may also be joined with one other kanji, as in 知的 (chi-teki [ chi + teki, intellect + like], intellectual) or foreign loanwords such as アメリカ (アメリカ 的, Amerika-teki, American-like).

的 also appears in the final position of four-kanji compounds, typically when the lead character is one of negation (e.g., 非人間的 hi-ningen-teki, not/human/like, inhuman) or amplification (e.g., 超感覚的 chō-kankaku-teki, ultra/sense/like, extrasensory).

的 adjectives are generally connected to the noun they modify with the particleな (na). For example, 個人的な意見, kojin-teki na iken, personal opinion.

(Note: 的 can also mean “target,” both literally, as in 射的 [shateki, shoot/target, target practice] and figuratively, as in 目的 [mokuteki, eye/target, goal]. In this usage, 的 has two possible pronunciations: mato and teki).

Scholars made liberal use of 的 in translating the English adjectives that flooded into Japanese when the isolationism of the Edo Period (1603?1867) came to an end with the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (e.g., “dramatic,” 劇的, geki-teki, drama/like; “systematic,” 体系的 taikei-teki, framework/system/like).

Then, fast forward to about a decade ago, and Japanese young people began appropriating 的. It is now firmly established in their vernacular, attached willy-nilly to nouns, even proper names (e.g., 山田先生的 Yamada-sensei-teki, Prof. Yamada-like, or AKB48的 [AKB48-teki, female song and dance group AKB48-like]), grammatical correctness be damned. 的 is also now commonly used as a “hedge,” a linguistic device for lessening the impact of an utterance. English speakers will be familiar with the hedges “somewhat” (e.g., “I’m somewhat disappointed in you”), “kind of” (e.g., “He’s kind of stingy”), and the cringe-inducing “like” that has infested North American English (e.g., “You’re, like, my only friend in the world”).

If a Japanese teenager can’t quite bring himself to call his girlfriend just that, a “girlfriend,” he can hedge with 彼女的な存在 (kanojo-teki na sonzai, a girlfriend-like person). And if his beloved insists on an assessment of her inedible home-baked cookies, he might offer a vague 味的にはちょっと . . . (Aji-teki ni wa chotto . . . Taste-wise, they’re a bit . . . ) leaving the rest to her imagination.

Young people are especially fond of tacking 的 on to first-person pronouns as a nifty way to avoid sounding pushy, removing themselves as the subject of a sentence involving an opinion. Thus 私 (watashi, I) morphs into 私的 (watshi-teki, me-like) and 私はOKだと思う (Watashi wa OK da to omou, I think it’s OK) is cast aside for the mealy-mouthed 私的にはOKだ (Watashi-teki ni wa OK da, From a me-like view, it’s OK). Variations featuring male first-person pronouns are 俺的 (ore-teki) and 僕的 (boku-teki).

As the popularity of 的 continues to grow, it’s being embraced by television personalities and by folks who — though their own teenage years are ancient history — still strive to sound hip. If you are a student of Japanese, I recommend using some restraint with 的, or you could, like, totally embarrass yourself in a formal setting. Rest assured that all the words in today’s quiz appear in dictionaries and are perfectly safe to use.

QUIZ: Match each of the following kanji compounds ending in 的 with its meaning and pronunciation.

1. 美的 (beauty/like)
2. 病的 (sickness/like)
3. 静的 (quiet/like)
4. 性的 (sex/like)
5. 公的 (public/like)
6. 人工的 (human labor/like)
7. 一方的 (one direction/like)
8. 家庭的 (home/like)
9. 肉体的 (the body/like)
10. 社交的 (social intercourse/like)
11. 自動的 (self-motion/like)
12. 魅力的 (allure/like)?

a. official (kouteki)
b. sexual (seiteki)
c. aesthetic (biteki)
d. static (seiteki)
e. morbid (byouteki)
f. one-sided (ippouteki)
g. domestic (kateiteki)
h. attractive (miryokuteki)
i. sociable (shakouteki)
j. automatic (jidouteki)
k. artificial (jinkouteki)
l. physical (nikutaiteki)

Answers: 1. c
2. e
3. d
4. b
5. a
6. k
7. f
8. g
9. l
10. i
11. j

A PDF version of a 12-lesson kanji learning series by Mary Sisk Noguchi, “Kanji Breakthrough,” is available free upon request at kanjiclinic.com

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