Sunday, February 28, 2010

Word Play: Kawaii

I once ran across an interesting, but false, claim on the Internet (imagine that, I know ;) ) where someone asked on a message board what "kawaii" meant and the answer they got was that it meant "kao ga ii" - "the face is good".

This was the linguistic equivalent of a near miss: "kakko ii"(kah-koh eee), meaning "the form is good" is a general word for "cool". Kawaii (kah-wah-eee), as proof that truth is stranger than fiction, literally means something that "is possible to love". 可愛い No pressure there!

I did hear folks using it in Japan while I was there, usually younger women but older women and occasionally men too. Of course, you'd never call yourself kawaii, but other people, pets, clothes, female pop singers, keychains, food and just about everything and everyone else is fair game, with a certain sort of squeal of delight as part of the delivery if you're female and young. As a young-ish woman myself who lived there long enough to subconsciously acclimate, I had to deprogram when I got back because an American woman in her late 20s cooing over stuff just gets plain funny looks here in the States.

Men prefer "kakko ii", of course, when it comes to describing them, which makes sense as most American men I know would give me a funny look if I said they were "cute" rather than "cool".

One last note! Be careful when using the word, as it's one vowel away from "scary" - "kowai" (koh-why). And that's not how you want to start a friendly conversation. "Wow, you look terrifying!"

1 comment:

Kelly Maple said...

'Wow, you look terrifying!'

Hahahahaha! Oh gosh, I can just picture it, the innocent beginner looking all happy and sweet, thinking she just called the person 'cute', and the poor confused Japanese person thinking 'What the heck? Did she make a mistake, or did I forget to look in a mirror before I left home? *internal panic*'