Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Both Awful and Wonderful? It must be "Yabai"...

About 15 years ago, I remember having a conversation with an Irish bartender in Osaka about the Japanese word "yabai". The word was originally used by Japanese criminals as indicating the threat of imminent capture by the police but had entered common parlance as representing something you did not like the sound of. I droned on that it was quite a difficult word to translate into English. My Dublin friend, with characteristic impatience for such pretentious blather, immediately cut me short and remarked that what "yabai" really meant then was "F*** that!" - which both made me laugh and stays in my mind as the best possible translation.

But reading a newspaper a few days ago I was shocked to discover that while I wasn't paying attention, "yabai" has completely changed its meaning. It seems that even 10 years ago, 70% of teenagers had switched to using "yabai" as meaning "terrific" or "wonderful".

It's interesting the way that words have the capacity to completely transform their meaning. In English, the word "sick" has undergone the same transformation from negative to positive meaning. And if you go back far enough, you discover that the most bland-seeming words like "nice" apparently once had the meaning of "terrifying".

What people seek from language is not necessarily clarity of meaning: language often represents the restlessness of the human condition, constantly seeking to invert and subvert that which has gone before. It's easy to become numbed to the fact that some of the words we use are a previous generation's ironical inversion of what they received from their forebears. When you attempt to adhere to fixed definitions of meaning, you alas lose sight of the way that language is in a constant state of rebellious evolution.

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