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Baka (馬鹿, ばか, or バカ) is a frequently used Japanese language word meaning "fool; idiot; jerk; dolt; imbecile; foolish; stupid; worthless; absurd; ridiculous".
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The Japanese insult baka "fool; idiot" is usually written 馬鹿 (lit. "horse deer") in kanji or ばか in hiragana, or occasionally バカ in katakana. Archaic ateji phonetic kanji transcriptions of baka include 莫迦 and 破家. In current internet slang, it is abbreviated BK.
In the Chinese language, these same 馬鹿 "horse deer" characters transcribe the word malu "Red Deer". Mumashika is a rare alternate Japanese reading of 馬鹿 that names "a yōkai demon with a horse's head and deer's body". The ca. 1832 Hyakki Yakō Emaki 百鬼夜行絵巻 "100 Demons' Night Parade Picture Scroll" depicts it with one eye, horse mouth and ears, and deer horn and hooves.
A Bunmei-era (1469-1487) edition of the Setsuyōshū dictionary notes baka 馬鹿 is also written 母嫁 (lit. "mother bride") or 馬嫁 (lit. "horse bride"), glossed as "bankruptcy and disorder" caused by a "fool".
First, baka 馬鹿 ("horse deer") is associated with the Chinese idiom zhi lu wei ma 指鹿為馬 (lit. "point at a deer and call it a horse", Japanese shika o sashite uma to nasu) meaning "deliberate misrepresentation for ulterior purposes". Zhao Gao was an infamous eunuch who served the first emperor Qin Shi Huang (r. 246-221 BCE) and forced the second Qin Er Shi (r. 210-207 BCE) to commit suicide. The Shiji history records that Zhao devised a loyalty test using a deer and horse.
Zhao Gao was contemplating treason but was afraid the other officials would not heed his commands, so he decided to test them first. He brought a deer and presented it to the Second Emperor but called it a horse. The Second Emperor laughed and said, "Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?" Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, while some, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, and others said it was a deer. Zhao Gao secretly arranged for all those who said it was a deer to be brought before the law. Thereafter the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao. (tr. Watson 1993:70)This etymology first appears is the ca. 1548 Unbo irohashu 運歩色葉集 dictionary, which glosses baka 馬鹿 as meaning "指鹿曰馬" "point at a deer and say horse". The 11th-century The Tale of Genji contains an earlier reference.
Kokiden flew into a rage. "A man out of favor with His Majesty is expected to have trouble feeding himself. And here he is living in a fine stylish house and saying awful things about all of us. No doubt the grovelers around him are assuring him that a deer is a horse. (tr. Seidensticker 1976:268)
Second, the Edo Period scholar Amano Sadakage 天野信景 (1633-1733) suggested that Japanese Buddhist priests coined the word baka "fool" from Sanskrit. The linguist and lexicographer Shinmura Izuru's Kōjien dictionary gives two possible etymons of moha 慕何 "foolish" and mahallaka 摩訶羅 "stupid". Sanskrit moha means "bewilderment, loss of consciousness, delusion, folly" and comes from the root muh "bewildered, perplexed, confused" (Arthur Anthony Macdonell 1954:236). Sanskrit mahallaka means "senile, feeble minded, stupid, decrepit" compares with mūrka "dull, stupid, foolish, inexperienced"', and comes from the root mūrkh "coagulate, thicken" (Macdonell 1954:220, 232).
Other proposed etymologies for baka are less attributed. Two Edo-era dictionaries proposed baka derived from: ōmaka 大まか "generous; unsparing" (Rigen shūran 俚言集覧) or bokeru 惚ける "grow senile; dote; become feeble-minded" (Matsuya hiki 松屋筆記). The Japanese ethnologist Kunio Yanagita proposed that bakamono 馬鹿者 "fool; idiot" (see below) derives from wakamono 若者 "young person; youth", through w- to b- onbin 音便 "euphonic change".
Three basic "fool; foolish" meanings distinguish baka1 "ass; jerk; fool", baka2 "ament; idiot; imbecile; fool" (ament is a rare but politically correct word for "mentally deficient"), and baka3 "blockhead; dullard; dimwit; simpleton; dolt; fool". These are found in many frequently-used Japanese expressions. Some more insulting lexemes are bakamono 馬鹿者 "stupid/born fool", ōbaka 大馬鹿 "big fool damned idiot", and baka-yarō 馬鹿野郎 "stupid jerk, ass, asshole". Some compounds are baka yoke 馬鹿ヨケ "foolproof; idiot-proof", baka warai 馬鹿笑い "foolish/horse laugh" and baka zura 馬鹿面 "foolish face; stupid look"; and some verb phrases are baka ni suru 馬鹿にする "make a fool of (someone); treat with contempt", baka yobawarisuru 馬鹿よばわりする "call (someone) a fool", and baka o miru 馬鹿を見る "make a fool/ass of (oneself)".
Two extended meanings of baka4 "worthless" and baka5 "excess" expand upon "folly; foolishness". Baka4 "worthless; foolish; valueless; trifling; insignificant" is used in expressions such as bakageta 馬鹿げた "foolish; absurd; ridiculous"; bakana 馬鹿な "foolish; silly; stupid"; and bakarashii 馬鹿らしい, bakabakabarashii 馬鹿々々らしい, or bakakusai 馬鹿臭い all meaning "foolish; absurd; ridiculous". It is further used in phrases like baka ie 馬鹿言え "Nonsense!; Go on!", and bakana mane o suru 馬鹿な真似をする "do a foolish thing; act foolishly". Baka5 "excess; foolish; absurd; extreme; extravagent" is found in a number of expressions: bakani 馬鹿に or bakabakashiku 馬鹿々々しく "awfully; terribly; extremely"; bakayasui 馬鹿安い "ridiculously/dirt cheap"; bakane 馬鹿値 or bakadakai 馬鹿高い "ridiculously expensive"; bakateinei 馬鹿丁寧 "excessive politeness"; and bakashōjiki 馬鹿正直 "honest to a fault".
Three special meanings are unrelated semantic connections. Baka6 "trough shell" is a truncation of bakagai 馬鹿貝 "trough shell; Mactra chinensis". Baka7 "numbness (of limbs)" is used in the expression baka ni naru 馬鹿になる, and baka8 means "(an antique kind of) coin counter".
The first recorded usages of baka were in the Nanboku-chō period (1336-1392). The Taiheiki (chap. 16, tr. Varley 1994:210) records bakamono 馬鹿者 being used as an insult in 1342. The Ashikaga commander Toki Yoritō 土岐頼遠 refuses to pay obeisance to retired Emperor Kōgon (r. 1313-1364), "Yoritō, probably inebriated, loudly demands to know what kind of fool (bakamono) has the temerity to order him to dismount." "Shinmura (1930:101) found that the original editions (fourteenth century) of the Taiheiki had baka written バカ", writes (Carr 1982:2), "later movable-type editions (c. 1600) had the characters 馬鹿."
In contemporary Japanese, baka is "the most commonly used" swearword (Bernabe, Niimura, and March 2004:151).
The linguistic pragmatics of using insults like baka can be language specific. For instance, Japanese has fewer words for calling someone a "fool" than English. Jack Seward (1976:167) recounts asking his language teacher "to prepare a list of the most stunning and forcible insults, pejoratives, and curses in Japanese", but was surprised that the "short, unimaginative, and seeming ineffectual" list had only two words: baka "fool" and chikushō 畜生 "beast".
One likely reason for the relatively few Japanese words for 'fool' is vagueness. In both English and Japanese, the words for 'fool' have meanings that vary along scales of friendly-hostile, or joking-serious. In English, at one end of a scale are words like silly goose and at the other end are words like stupid asshole. And in Japanese, at one end are words like kamaboko baka 蒲鉾馬鹿 'silly chump' and at the other end are words like baka-yarō 馬鹿野郎 'damn fool'. The difference is in the degree of lexical diversification along the scales of meaning. English seems to have more 'fool' words with more specificity – Japanese seems to have fewer 'fool' words with more vagueness. There are decided pragmatic and communicative advantages to such lexical vagueness. If you call me a stupid son-of-a-bitch, I know exactly what you mean. But if you call me a baka-yarō, I cannot be so sure of what you mean. The expression baka-yarō 馬鹿野郎 is one of the most insulting terms in the Japanese lexicon, but it is vague and can range in meaning from an affectionate 'silly-willy' to an abusive 'jerk-off fool'. Baka-yarō is so widely used that it has become semantically weak and vague. Such vagueness can serve to conceal hostility and thus to maintain social harmony. (1992:14-15)
Japanese dialects show regional variations between using baka in Kantō region dialect and ahō 阿呆 or あほ "fool; idiot; jackass" in Kansai region dialect. In addition, the insult ahō has more of a slang connotation than baka. Many Japanese dictionaries treat the words baka and ahō as synonyms. "However, in Osaka and its surroundings, aho is a rather non-offensive word, whereas baka is an explosive word", Bernabe, Niimura, and March (2004:151) explain, "In Tokyo and its surroundings, we find exactly the opposite, so you must be careful with the usage of these words."
Baka frequently occurs in proper nouns. Examples from Japanese pop music include albums (Pretty Little Baka Guy, Ai no Baka "Love Fool") and songs (Suki Sugite Baka Mitai "To Like [him] Too Much and Look Like a Fool"). Some titles from modern Japanese literature are Tsuribaka Nisshi ("Fishing Fool's Diary"), Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs ("Dog Fool"), and Baka to Test to Shōkanjū ("Idiots, Tests, and Summoned Creatures").
During World War 2, baka was American military slang for the Japanese ohka 櫻花 (lit. "Cherry Blossom") kamikaze flying bomb (Evans 1997:11-12). The earliest recorded usage (Russell 1947:113) was in Newsweek (May 7, 1945), "American forces have officially designated this bomb as 'baka', baka being Japanese for foolish, silly, or stupid."
- Bernabe, Marc, Ken Niimura, and Guillermo March. 2004 Japanese in MangaLand: Learning the Basics. Japan Publications Trading.
- Carr, Michael. 1982. "Baka and Fool", The Review of Liberal Arts 63:1-18.
- Evans, Toshie M. 1997. A Dictionary of Japanese Loanwords. Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Macdonell, Arthur. 1954. A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
- Russell, I. Willis. 1947. "Among the New Words." American Speech 22.3:113-114.
- Seidensticker, Edward G. 1976. The Tale of Genji. Knopf.
- Shinmura Izuru 新村出. 1930. "Baka ko 馬鹿考", in Shinmura Izuru zenshū 新村出全集 1971:100-104. Chikuma. (Japanese)
- Varley, H. Paul. 1994. Warriors of Japan as Portrayed in the War Tales. University of Hawaii Press.
- Watson, Burton. 1993. Records of the Grand Historian. Columbia University Press.