Language | BILINGUAL

Politicians may ru the day their names became verbs

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

“Which new words would you like to see added to the dictionary?” A couple of months ago the publishing house Taishukan put this generous question to Japanese high school and junior high school students.

The students, among other oddities, suggested the terms nodaru (野田る), kanru (菅る) and hatoru (鳩る). With reference to the surnames of Japan’s three latest prime ministers, these terms according to the students are supposed to mean, respectively, “fighting with dirty hands while making polished speeches,” “lolling about without moving on” and “changing one’s opinion on a daily basis.”

Apart from the fact that the students apparently had a rather critical view of Japanese politics, their suggestions are quite remarkable from a linguistic point of view. They reflect an interesting phenomenon in morphology, or the study of word formation.

Basically, what the students did when creating these new words was turn a noun into a verb, a process linguists call derivation. The orthodox way to do so in Japanese is using the noun-to-be-a-verb together with the verb suru (する, to do).

For example, the noun shiji (支持) meaning “support” becomes “to support” when we add suru to make it shiji suru (支持する). The same principle is also commonly applied to loan words, as for instance in sapōto suru (サポートする).

However, this is not the way the students remodeled their nouns into verbs in our three examples, as the results would have been noda suru (野田する), kan suru (菅する), and hato suru (鳩する). What they did instead was take the most common verb-ending, -ru, and directly attach it to the nouns in question. In other words, rather than making it “do the Noda,” “do the Kan,” or “do the Hato,” they invented the verbs “to noda,” “to kan,” and “to hato.”

Though the words themselves are new, the way they have been derived is not a new phenomenon at all. A closer look at the Japanese lexicon shows that there are quite a number of other verbs that developed from nouns in this way.

Take for instance the noun jiko (事故), which means “accident.” The corresponding verb is not jiko suru, but jikoru (事故る). Another example is shikkeru (湿気る), used to refer to moist and humid conditions. It was derived from the noun shikke (湿気, humidity). The verbs yajiru (野次る, jeer, hoot), guchiru (愚痴る, complain, whine), kokuru (告る, confess) and hinikuru (皮肉る, be sarcastic) have a similar history.

The trick not only works with native Japanese vocabulary, as in the examples just given, but occasionally also when turning loan nouns into verbs. Daburu (ダブる) is one rather elegant example. It means “coincide” or “occur more than once.” It derives from the English “double,” which in Japanese becomes daburu (ダブル). It was a handy candidate for being made into a verb, as by mere coincidence it happened to end in ru anyway. The only thing that needed to be done was to interpret this ending in a new light. The same thing happened to toraburu (トラブる), for which the English “trouble” served as lexical input, and, more recently, guguru (ググる) — if you don’t know what it means, just google it.

Even if a loan noun does not end in ru, that doesn’t disqualify it from becoming a verb. Just like with native Japanese words, the simple trick is to add the ending manually. Thus we get saboru (サボる, play truant) from “sabotage,” memoru (メモる, take notes) from “memory,” misuru (ミスる, make an error) from “mistake” and panikuru (パニクる) from, well, “panic.” Also noteworthy is ekoru (エコる) from “ecology,” whose mixed script version “ecoる” is now embellishing beverage vending machines across the country.

While the ru ending usually occurs after the second or third kana character of a former noun, there are also a few cases where longer verbs develop. One of my favorites is sutanbaru (スタンバる), meaning “be on stand-by.” It’s not to be confused with sutabaru (スタバる), “go Starbucksing.” And while we’re at it, there has also been deniru (デニる) and jonaru (ジョナる), with reference to the major family restaurant chains Denny’s and Jonathan’s.

Coming back to our examples from the opening, it’s fair to say that Japanese morphology is at least as intriguing as Japanese politics. Perhaps one difference between the two is that word formation appears far more regular and stable than factional alliance-building. That’s why it’s difficult to predict which will be the next new verb to follow on hatoru, kanru and nodaru. Or what it’s going to mean.

Due to illness, Mary Sisk Noguchi is unable to continue her regular Kanji Clinic column, which would usually have appeared this week.

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