Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lie, Stupid, Starving

We can translate “lie” into Japanese, but “uso 嘘” doesn’t exactly mean the same as  “lie.” I’ve been reading a few books by Suzuki Takao, a Japanese linguist. He pointed out this important matter about “lie.”

If an English speaker says, “You lied to me,” it means that I did something morally wrong. That’s quite disturbing, isn’t it? I haven’t thought too much about it in the past, but come to think of it, the linguist is right that we Japanese think of “uso” as only “uso.”

Uso means untruth. If you say untruth is negative, then from that point of view, yes, it is negative, but there is no other negative meaning attached to it. I looked at my dictionary and found that “lie” means an intentionally false statement involving deception. I’m a bit shocked to see the words “intentionally” and “deception.” Uso is not necessarily malicious. So “lie” is malicious “uso,” I think. Fiction is uso. That’s why someone made a funny face when I said fiction is lie.

We Japanese often say in Japanese, “You’re a liar,” or “That’s a lie!” with no intention of accusation, but those speeches exclude subjects and articles, such as “You’re a” or “That’s a.” That’s our normal daily speech. Our customary grammar alone, I think, shows less accusation than in English. Definitely, “You’re a liar” is stronger than “Liar.” And the modern Japanese grammar was developed based on the western grammar, so we have the first, the second, and the third person points of view. But that’s because they have been defined according to western grammars. So that fact alone is actually problems because it forces the well-developed but not- matching grammar onto our totally different language. I think it’s been giving people quite illusion

So when Japanese say “Lie” or “Liar” to other Japanese in Japanese, it usually sounds comical and light hearted. I often hear that word repeated by Japanese with or without smiles. I didn’t think much of it all these years. But to delve into the meaning of each word takes tremendous time and experience.

Also “stupid” is not exactly the same as baka. Once I had a heated argument with my son about it, now I think back that maybe there was misunderstanding. I love my children, and they are smarter than when I was growing up. I respect them. So under any circumstances, I’d never call them “stupid.” But one time, my son accused me of it. I was furious. I said to him,

“I never said that. I never have that in my heart and brain. How can I ever say that?” I said.

That ended our argument. But I was disturbed by it. What made him tell me that? Growing up, my mother mumbled to herself sometimes when she made an error. She would say, “Because I’m baka. My brain is bad.” Those sentences are without any subject and possessive. But she was very smart person. Westerners usually say such persons have low self esteem. That does not apply to Japanese. My mother had very high self-esteem. That’s one thing I’ve been successful planting in my children without putting any extra effort.

Anyway, for three or four years, my mother was reared by her most disciplined, high-rank samurai grandfather. Putting herself down was cultural, and it’s her own way of improving herself and being humble. Baka is written 馬鹿 which is horse and deer. Well, I might have said to myself, “Baka-ne.” My son speaks only English.
I hope he is reading this.

I think we only realized something like this only when we get into troubles. Can you imagine how many erroneous but innocent words I’ve been using in the past? Wow, I have to go around all over the countries to apologize for the rest of my life!

After talking about lie and stupid, I want to cover “starving.” My daughter was twelve when she came to Japan the second time. She stayed with my mother for a few weeks, and she went to stay with a friend of mine for three weeks. Her family members do not speak English in their daily life, but with a good dictionary, they can carry a basic conversation. I don’t know how exactly the situation was, but my daughter said, “I’m starving!” The friend looked at the dictionary for the word. The following year I met her, I thanked her for taking care of my daughter. She said to me,

The fact is that…it was a mealtime and. I thought I should let you know this,” she continued in stops and starts.

“What is it?”

“I thought you should know, and you probably ought to tell her not using such language.”

I frowned a little.

“Your daughter said…well….Starving”, she said putting her hand over her mouth halfway.

“Is that all?” I said, “In English, we say, “I’m starving when we are very hungry. That’s nothing wrong with that. We all say it. It’s humorous.”

The friend’s expression turned deflated.

In Japanese, starving is the state of serious famine. So the meaning of each word demands much attention and discussion. I don’t think linguists alone can make a perfect dictionary. Besides languages are always changing, too.

In summary, I think the real problem is not only miscommunication but also how each of us sees the world in which we’re in without judging. I don’t know how many times I have done. As I read, I find even well-known linguists make mistakes on language assessment. No wonder, we all make mistakes often without being aware. Well, what’s news, right?


jiturajgor said...

There is one word in 'Hindi' and 'gujarati' that resemblance with 'USO' and that is, 'Gappa' means 'lie' in lighter and amusing form. The person will be called 'Gappidas' or 'Gapodi' instead of 'liar' who used to tell that kind of 'gapp' things. And it is not exactly lie, but truth in form of fiction like,over or under statement. 'Lie' is called 'Jhooth' and is much condemnable, bad virtue.

keiko amano said...


I’m fired up again on language. I can’t help it. I appreciate that I can converse about this. About your response, I thought it interesting that you have two separate words, “gappa” and “'Jhooth.' I wonder if they originally came from different Indian tribal groups.

I thought about it, and “gappa” connected to a Japanese word. The word is “kappa” which is a fictional character in Japanese folk tales. I asked my Sanskrit teacher if it is connected to Sanskrit. He said no. But I felt some kind of connections. So I mentioned to him about another different word but the same pronunciation. “Kappa” or “gappa” came from Portuguese. They mean the kind of raincoats like ponchos. I hope Luciana can verify this word. The instructor knows this kappa raincoat, of course. So, I said, “Portuguese is an Indo-European language, isn’t it?” He said a part of India was occupied by Portuguese once, so it could be from Portuguese. But he didn’t think it was from Sanskrit. Anyway, he looked for the word in the Sanskrit dictionary and found a word something like “gaph or gabh.” I’m unsure about spelling but he said it meant “cover.” Yes. The “kappa” raincoat covers our body. I don’t know what the truth is about the origin of those words, but I’m excited.

Also I had this conversation with a friend of mine today as below

“I found out “lie” and “uso嘘”are not the same. “Lie” means intentional and with deception. All these years, I was unaware of being vague on its meaning. So “lie is malicious uso.”

The friend nods. She is Japanese, so we’re talking in Japanese. She doesn’t speak English daily, but she’s been reading some English novels since her teenage years. So she knows the basic word, lie.” I think most Japanese know it the way I used to understand it. So I say to her,

“Now you know “lie” is malicious uso. How do you interpret, “malicious lie” into Japanese?” .

“Terrible uso,” she said in Japanese.

“No. I told you “lie” is malicious uso. So what do you say “malicious lie” in Japanese?”

“Malicious uso, “she says.

“No, no. “Lie” is malicious uso already. Rememer? Now how do you interpret “malicious lie?”

We repeated this argument several times. Her face remained puzzled. But I think she got what I was trying to get at. But if “lie” means already malicious with intent of deceiving other party, then can you have such a phrase “malicious lie?” Is it weird? Does it make it already maliciousness of lie more malicious, do you think?

By the way, we do have something similar to malicious uso written in multiple kanji characters. I think they are related more to the laws. But we don’t use them in daily conversations.

jiturajgor said...

In Sanskrit 'Lie' has one prefect, ultimate word and that is 'ASATYA'
[ oppsite of 'satya' the truth].This word is very ancient and we are using it in many Indian languages since 8000 years.

Luciana said...

Keiko, a ' capa de chuva' is a rain(chuva)coat(capa). Also, a book cover is a ' capa de livro'. So basically, the word 'capa' in Portuguese has the general meaning of covering and/or protecting.
This is a fascinating subject! :-)

Dorraine said...

Truly do admire those who can speak different languages, Keiko. And believe me, you're to be commended for keeping everything as clear as you do.

I tried to learn German once and got totally lost in the language. I think too much in English. Perhaps if I'd learned languages at an early age, my luck would have been far better. But I would still like to learn. As always, enjoyed your post!

keiko amano said...


I’ve learned “satya” in my class, so “asatya” is uso in Japanese. I found something very interesting by reading your comment. That is I was unaware for a while about it probably because I’m used to English. In English, antonym have “a” attached in the beginning like “asynchronous” or “asymmetry.” That’s the same as Sanskrit.

I find more and more connection between Sanskrit and English as well as Japanese. For Japanese connection, so far I find it in nouns. But for English, they are in the grammar structure and even verbs. The other day, I found a Sanskrit root verb, bandh which is the same meaning in English, band. I also feel “sat” of “satya” is prevalent in many common Japanese words. Nobody confirmed this though.

keiko amano said...


Oh, it’s “capa” not kappa. Thank you. When we say raincoat, we say simply “kappa,” but also we say “amagappa.” Ama is a different pronunciation of ame (rain), and “k” becomes stronger sound to “g” as gappa. In Sanskrit, this kind of becoming stronger sound is called guna. I’ve just learned it.

And capa is like capacity and capable. That makes sense. It all means something to do with “cover” like covering territories. I love it.

About Portuguese in India a long time ago, the instructor said they had a cannon loaded on their ship or ships, and that was a point of their failure. I hope to find out about that. Portugal seemed a giant in 15 and 16th centuries.

I’ve watched a few BBC videos of Portuguese language lessons. It’s pretty old.
I hope I find better lessons. On television programs, I see most major language lessons, but not Portuguese. The video showed a little bit of Brazil only through a carnival of

Comentário obrigado.

keiko amano said...


I think everyone is capable (ha, capa!) of learning foreign languages at any age. Children and some adults learn faster than others in speaking. That’s true. But we don’t need to compete with anyone for our enjoyment, and understanding of language varies person to person. We’re all different with different background and interest. Especially on the area of meaning of words, we have vast opportunities to dig deep. Dictionaries define words, but they often fail in giving appropriate meanings. It’s fun area to discuss.

I’ve suffered with English for a long time because I didn’t learn it as a child. But my sensibilities to the language wouldn’t be the same if I were a native English speaker.
I enjoy my knowledge as well as lack of it. I think it’s just right for my interest. Language abilities really vary, and we can enjoy according to our level. Anyway, it will enrich our life, I’m sure.

About German, I read one good example written by Kindaichi Haruhiko. I was fascinated by it. He wrote the following:

“German has as many words as Japanese, but one thing we can be envious. It has a very effective system in word usages. Once we learn one word, almost automatically we understand other words. For example, “albeit” means work, and if we add “en,” it becomes a verb, “albeiten,” work. If we add “er,” it becomes “albeiter,” worker. “Albeitgeber” is employer as geber is giver. Isn’t that great?

By the way, Japanese imported “albeit” long time ago. We use it often. The word became arubaito which means a part time job or moonlighting. Like English, Japanese imported many foreign words. That’s one major similarity between English and Japanese.

Thank you for your comment.

Vincent said...

I've enjoyed your post and comments, Keiko. As to "malicious lie", it is emphasising the maliciousness already there, when the speaker feels so upset that the short word "lie" doesn't express enough emotion. Does Japanese have this, the piling-on of redundant synonyms simply in order to fire a tirade of verbal bullets? In a Western movie for example, the stereotyped phrase would be not "You liar!" but "you dirty, double-crossing, two-timing son of a bitch . . ." and more besides. In other words the intention is to insult, and to "vent one's spleen" - an archaic expression which has survived hundreds of years.

I'll confess to you, Keiko, that I have been very well educated in languages, French and Italian, and have read the best literature of their respective cultures, in the original. But I am too lazy to read in these languages now. To learn all the subtleties possible in English is enough project for several lifetimes, and I've reached the age when I can do what I please. I mention this because you say "I think everyone is capable of learning foreign languages at any age." I have immense respect for all those who do it so successfully, like you, Keiko, but I'm content to say that I can't, and leave it at that, even if I lie (in the Japanese sense of uso), when I say it.

Rebb said...


This blog is very interesting to read. I learned a lot and you’ve given me much to think about. It seems that words that are more literal and concrete, would translate more easily. But when it comes to abstract words like love, even lie—since there are different degrees of lying, and you’ve provided a good case of the confusion in translation with regard to lie. Anyway, it is quite fascinating and I’m glad that through reading your blogs, you are making me pay more attention to language in a different way. I was in a used bookstore last week and browsed what they had in the foreign language section, specifically the Japanese books. They did have one very good book there. The method was called…I can’t remember—but it also talked about how in the Japanese language, sentences usually begin with the object (I’m going from memory, Keiko, so please correct me) and the person being spoken about is not directly stated—along these lines anyway. And it makes me think how that can really change the whole flavor of communication, since in English, everything seems to be “I” person centered. I remember reading somewhere also that in Japanese art, nature is usually the focal point and the people are smaller and put in the background. Since this is another form of language, it really adds to understanding the mindset that goes with the language, which seems to have a sense of elegance and reverence to it.

One last thing. I checked out a dictionary from the library: “A new dictionary of Kanji usage” (Gakken). I mostly got it to look at the characters because they fascinate me. It seems organized well for someone that knows what they’re looking for and the character is written larger than most dictionaries and then it has the alternatives and pairing of additional characters to add new meaning. I’ve only flipped through it a few times. It’s nice to at least have a look. But, I wanted to tell you, that I’m intrigued by the title of your story, “Pickles” that’s on Red Room. I printed out page one just to see if I could recognize any of the characters. It made my eyes hurt to look for so long, but I was able to find what looked like “eye,” “direction,” and “all whole.” And that was all I could easily find.

Does the Japanese language also have “clichés” or certain idioms, like “cat got your tongue” or “spill the beans”?

p.s. I like the German example you provided. Language is amazing!

keiko amano said...


Yes, you mean redundancy. The one I hear very often and wish ministers and other policy making people stop saying Anzen, Anshin(安心、安全). These words mean something similar to “safety, security.” To me, one word is enough. If we feel safety, we have security, and if we have security, we feel safe. Even PM says it.

About verbal bullets, I have to think more. In certain Edo-period plays, yes, I see such verbal lively match scenes. They are usually done among craft men or something like that. British, Ameridcans, and others seem good at verbal bullets. It seems like a sport. Most Japanese stay away from it.

So you speak French and Italian. That’s good. Learning other language energizes own language. Many people in Japan speak a regional dialect beside the standard Japanese. Suzuki Takao, a linguist, wrote that Japanese regional languages are more different than between German and Danish, something like that. So probably original Okinawan language differs from Japanese as English and French. The sound and words, and sometimes the number of vowels could be different among regional languages. So I would say, from that point of view, many Japanese are bilingual, but they don’t know it. We just call all the regional languages Japanese, and Japanese try to adapt to the central language.

keiko amano said...


I’m glad to receive this response. Here, I’m learning more by presenting what I’ve learned so far. This is great. Now I know “quit” is also the candidate for clarification in English dictionaries. According to my Japanese-English dictionary, “quit” is not included under the definition of “yameru (stop).” But it appears in a sample sentence below as quitting alcohol or cigarettes. Isn’t that interesting? The subtle not-neutral meaning is there, but not yet defined in the section above. There are a lot of opportunities in creating better dictionaries.

By the way, my digital dictionary has Oxford Dictionary of English, Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, three English-Japanese, one Japanese-English, Kojien(Japanese-Japanese), and Kanji dictionary. I like other dictionaries also, but for digital dictionaries, so far, I cannot find better than what I have.

About the development of hiragana from kanji, I noticed that the last time I copied a link to show it you, the site explained as follow. つ(tu)was developed from 川 (river). But, I learned a new theory. Because of the most recent discovery of the related old document, I found out that つ came from津.

First, Chinese created 津. It means bay and probably pronounced close to tu. Because the left side of the character means water or river and the right side is, I think, a pier where boats are resting either side of it. This is my guess though. I haven’t confirmed it. Please enlarge the character so that you won’t ruin your eyesight. Can you see that? So I think this ancient Japanese scholar pondered for a while in order to make our simple hiragana letter of tu. He stared at 津 knowing it’s bay. He was a visual artist, I think. Because he was also a traveler and poet, a bay or an alcove appeared in his head. He dipped his brush into a small ink well, and in one stroke, he drew つ. What do you think of my theory?
Fiction is uso, but I feel truth there. He was a true artist.

About “Pickles,” I don’t know what that’s all about. Can you explain?

About clichés, technically speaking we do have them. But Japanese do not look down on them. Many writers and speakers use them, and our culture prizes classical Chinese and Japanese and other foreign quotes including “Time is money.” And we use them again and again. More quotes and poems people can recite at appropriate times and place, we admire them. I think my mother attracted many people because of it. But we have too many. It’s impossible to remember all.

Luciana said...

Keiko, you might want to check this:

By the way, how do you post a link on comments, Vincent?

Rebb said...


The nuances of language are fascinating. How does “quitter” (someone who quits) translate in your dictionary?

Thank you, Keiko. I did enlarge it to 25 and I can see it much better! Yes, I think your theory sounds plausible. Interesting how a character can be simplified down to one artistic stroke.

One best way to learn and retain is by presenting, so that’s great!

Thanks for explaining about clichés. I personally find many to be very useful. But when I write certain things, and I notice them, I try to take them out. I do this mostly because writing teachers have made such a big deal about it.

Pickles is on your Red Room page under “Writing: Articles & Stories.” I can’t read it though because it’s in Japanese! :)

Lu, that's a great video. So similar to Spanish.

Vincent said...

Hi Lu, here's a lesson in putting in a link, which works in comments or on a post equally.

First, make a copy of the link ready to post. In your case, it's:

Now I shall explain how to surround the link. But the magic is so powerful that I cannot perform it directly yet. So when I write [ you are to understand that
and also that ] means >

In front of the link, put these characters:

[a href="

remembering to put < instead of [

after the link put these characters:


remembering to put > instead of ]

then put some text to describe the link, such as

here's a video

then finish off with a closing tag


remembering to substitute as before

Now here is the whole thing put together

[a href=""]Here's a video[/a]

Here is how it looks when you do it properly, using < and > instead of [ and ] :

Here's a video

keiko amano said...


Thank you for the great link. Not many people are around me in cafe, so I peeked at it. It looks like Spanish with French accents. It's gentle. I love it. Um momento is almost exactly the same as Spanish. And I love the phrase, "my friend lives in Japan" or something. During Xmas, I want to look at all the sites I saw in the list and go over slowly.

Today, I bought a book titles "Language World Map." It covers 49 languages. Portuguese are spoken in some countires in Africa. I didn't know. Portugal is a tiny country, but Brazil is huge and everyone ended up speaking Portuguese. It's a major language.

The book does not explain in detail, but I'm fascinated with a bit explanation that "for him to speak" can be said in one word like "to speak" with some appendage. The author said, this differs from other Romance languages. Would you give us a sample, please? I'm interested.

keiko amano said...


I looked for “quitter” in my dictionary. It does describe all the negativity such as coward and all. That’s strong. Well, we don’t want to be quitters, but we can’t say stoppers. So what should we use instead? Cancellers? I guess there is no neutral word for it.

About Pickles, thank you. I forgot that I deposited there. I also wrote about cheeseburger and 7up, but it seems lost. Have you read it?

keiko amano said...


Thank you for your kind instruction. I have copied it for future use. That's very helpful.

keiko amano said...

By the way, I took the first photo in front of the Yokohama central library, the second from inside the library cafe, and the third on my way to the library. The red plants are called Dodan Azalea. They are only red leaves, not flowers.

Luciana said...

Vincent,our tech consultant, thanks a lot!:-)
Keiko and Rebb, I´ve been asked many times before what language was I speaking, and the comment would frequently be just like you said: it is not Spanish and it´s not French, but it sounds like a mix of both...So I guess that´s what Brazilian Portuguese might sound like.
Keiko, tiny Portugal was great because they had knowledge. When they started expelling most of the knowledgeable people from their country (many of them were Jews or simply oppositors to the crown), they started their decline.

Rebb said...

Is this what’s called a conundrum? ;) You are right it doesn’t sound like there is a neutral word for "quitter". It’s funny…when I hear “stoppers,” my mind thinks of a clogged drained.

No, I don’t recall anything about cheeseburgers and 7up. Sounds interesting though.

Interesting points on Portuguese. It does seem like a French/Spanish blend. The “V” sound is prominent too, isn’t it?

keiko amano said...


About stoppers, I thought of a rubber stopper behind doors when I thought of it. And cancellers, I thought of an innovative 60s-like singing group?! May be, you, Lu, and I can be “The Cancellers.” Cancel all prejudice in the world! Cancel all nonsense. Vote for the Cancellers for the world peace.

keiko amano said...


The history is interesting. It declined because of pushing good people out. But those people went on to succeed on their own.

So many Jewish people were already there, and they had to spread all over the world fortunately or unfortunately depending on our perspectives. This is making me think further about language and our worlds. A small country like Portugal or England made such an impact in the modern world history that today, their languages cover wide areas. I can feel and visualize a bit how the ancestor tribe of the Indo European languages migrated all over the world long before ten thousand years ago. They did it on foot. People pushed and were pushed. I can only imagine the world history in my Japanese head how it happened and how people felt. The small tribe's language has been spreading even today.

keiko amano said...
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keiko amano said...
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ZACL said...

Now you are aware, Keiko, of the use of 'fib', the verb to fib, which you and I have discussed with my most recent post ( detailing when I went for a spin on black not likely to be aforethought in any malicious way. They could be meant kindly.

Nothing in English is ever black and white, there are many variations and shades in between. The linguist you mention, was, I believe, discussing and focussing on one strong action. To broaden out the subject of any term or word used in written or speech form would take a lifetime, and s/he still would not have dealt with all possibilities. The nuances can only be learned by hearing them in use, observing, and learning to use them. A meaning may lessen or strengthen with a facial expression, body language, or verbal use.

keiko amano said...


Thank you. This is one of my popular blogs. People still access this site.

For the readers, here is ZACL's blog she mentioned.

Because of your comment, I reread the blog and each comment. Some I've forgotten about, so I was delighted to spend some time to read all. I really enjoy this kind of discussion.

About nuances, yes, I agree with you. I appreciate your explanation about fib on your blog. I'm enlightened. When I reread this blog and comments, I found Vincent's comment. I guess he didn't think about fib when he wrote it. It's strange though that I missed the word all these years.

About body and facial expression, we need a new blog. It's another complicated and most misunderstood area of communication, so it can be fun to discuss.