How to say “plumber butt” in Japanese, and other random Sunday thoughts


The other day I suddenly remembered the phrase 半ケツ.

I’m not sure what prompted it. I mean, I have as many random sexual thoughts as your average red-blooded American male, but this was not sexual in nature…at least not completely. My boss at the translation company used the phrase often when we had morning meetings. We didn’t have enough chairs, so he would nod at a couple of the ladies that worked in the office and say something like 半ケツで座って. Then they’d share one of the chairs and, literally, “half ass” it.

I’m not sure why I was thinking about the company or about the seats, but I guess it could have had something to do with the visceral nature of the asses. Who knows. Initially I was going to have this post be something about the viral nature of language, about how memory is kind of magical, which is also reflected in the way that kanji shift from blocks made of bits and pieces to larger blurs that carve out space in your mind over the course of your studies, but it turns out 半ケツ is a pretty interesting phrase.

First, ケツ has two options for kanji: 穴 and 尻. You can read more on this Yahoo Chiebukuro post, but this does make for the possibility that ケツの穴 could be written as 穴の穴, which is pretty cool.

Second, 半ケツ also happens to mean “plumber butt” in Japanese. Read more on this blog post. Google Images confirms that this is indeed the case: follow this link at your own discretion (NSFW).

So I guess the real moral of this post is…you just never know.

号外 – The Latest on Farting

Interesting discussion about farts happening on my Google Buzz import of this post. When I wrote my rules for kanji compounds, I knew that the VERB + DIRECT OBJECT was in the Chinese order, but I didn’t know much more than that. Roy from Mutantfrog pointed out that some Japanese words are in this order but were actually created by Japanese people – sort of like 和製英語 for Chinese. The actual term for this is 和製漢語.

Chen then pointed out that 放屁 is actually Chinese in origin:

Very interesting. I have heard of 和製漢語 before but never ever thought so many modern Chinese words actually came from Japan. From the Chinese article linked in that wikipeida page: Yan Fu, the most famous Chinese scholar and translator in 1800s, lost his battle to Japanese translators when trying to translate modern western science and social words to Chinese. According to the author, “Yan Fu understood Chinese too well and was pursuing perfect combination of sound, rhythm, meaning and elegance. Yan’s translation used quaintly old-fashioned Chinese which was very hard for regular people. He himself even said he only considered highly educated people as his readers. While Japanese scholars/translators did not pay too much attention on those constraints but rather focused on ease of understanding, their translation were simple and straightforward. With competitor like this, it’s no wonder that Yan’s translation was abandoned”.

The word 放屁 (Fang Pi) appeared in several Chinese books/articles long before Qing Dynasty, when the “counter-import” of Chinese from Japan mostly occurred, not that I’m proud of but I think it has to be a Chinese word originated in China. It also has the meaning of “talking nonsense”, like BS in English.

And Isaac also added an important comment regarding usage:

Oh no, you gotta watch out when using this word, cos you don’t want to get it confused with the “other” ほうひ(包皮)- foreskin

放屁 is a word that is fun to recognize and understand, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say you should never try using it yourself. There are much more natural ways to pass gas.

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When you speak Japanese, what are your hands doing? In the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that when foreigners speak Japanese, many of them seem to have a wicked case of what I’ve termed “charades hands.” We all wave our hands like Stan the used boat salesman from Monkey Island:

I’m tempted to say that ESL folks aren’t plagued by “Stan hands.” For whatever reason, Japanese just draws it out of us. There’s so much more I’m trying to express! Can’t you understand what my hands are trying to say! I’ll freely admit that my hands are as guilty as everyone else’s, but I’ve been trying to be better about it recently.

Do whatever it takes to keep them under control. Put them in your pockets. Sit on them. Hold something really heavy. I have a feeling that maintaining control of your hands will force you to make your word choices more accurate and your grammar more precise.

I think mastery of the passive tense probably cuts down on “charades hands” by about 50%, so go ahead and start there.

Grossest Idiom Ever?

Last week at work I came across possibly the grossest idiom in existence – 爪(つめ)の垢(あか)を煎(せん)じて飲む. The first thing I did was turn to my trusty 慣用句 (かんようく) online dictionary. The interface could be better; the search engine is pretty good, but if that doesn’t find it, you have to narrow down the idiom by the first two kana via the menu on the left. Some of the idioms have their own pages, others are just given on a long page with other definitions. The best part is that the whole thing is in Japanese, which forces you to study and get a feel for how it works in Japanese, rather than learning a straight up translation.

This one has its own page, and the definition is: 優れた人の爪の垢を貰って薬として飲むという意味で、その人に肖(あやか)ろうとすること。

So, yes, you boil an awesome person’s fingernail crud and drink it as medicine so that you can be cool like them. Something like that. I had to look up 肖(あやか)ろう, and I think it means something like “be lucky.” Still getting used to the usage here, but I’m thinking it’s something like “I wanna be like Mike.” It can be put into basically any tense by changing 飲む – some of the frequently used tenses are 飲みたい, 飲ませる. The difference between these two is pretty drastic. With 飲みたい, the speaker thinks the person is so great, great enough that they’d drink their fingernail crud. With 飲ませる, someone is clearly lacking something that crud from fingernails of superlative person X could hopefully fix, and the person doing the causing thinks they should drink up. Gross.

Here’s a blog entry with actual usage. Always good practice to learn stuff.

It would be fun to write a fake article about the “recent boom” of Japanese “fingernail crud cafes.”


My introductory Japanese classes are so far in the past now that all my memories feel like a blur. I do have a vague feeling that for whatever reason they never taught us the body parts in a single lesson. Maybe I was expecting something along the lines of my high school Spanish class where we had to label a poster or at least fill in the blanks around a mannequin on handouts and tests. We probably got bits and pieces here and there – お腹がすいている, 喉が渇いている, etc. – but never a full lesson with all the parts…I think.

So maybe that’s why I thought that 背中 (せなか) meant back for so long. I mean, I guess it does, but if you’re talking back pain, that’s 腰 (こし). 背中 feels more like that area around your shoulder bones, almost. The two basically mean upper back and lower back, but if you’re talking in general, 腰 might be the word you’re looking for.

If you’ve been sleeping on a too-thin futon for too long, the phrase you’re looking for is – 腰が痛い.

(Past body part entries: read about boobs here and here – both bring in fans from various search engines – and fingers here.)


With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and mid-October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced, I will post a small piece of unpublished Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement.


Murakami (Do I even need to tell you which one?) lived in Europe for three years between 1986 and 1989. In addition to novels and short stories, he also wrote a lengthy set of travel writings called Tōi taiko (遠い太鼓, A Distant Drum).

During his travels he spent some time on a small Greek island, and the tourists there often sunbathed nude. Apparently only the local Greek men (he calls them "Zorba Greeks") went to the trouble of checking out the boobs. This resulted in a three-page discussion of nude sunbathing and the following moment of complete linguistic genius:


(I was going to write the page number at the end of that line, but when I realized it was page 69, I thought I’d better explain what I was doing.)

The Japanese is so economical that translating it won’t be as great, but here it goes:

If it’s a person’s prerogative to reveal her boobs, then it’s also a person’s prerogative to look at revealed boobs

That kind of expresses what’s going on with the verb. 出す literally means “take out,” but I translated it as “reveal” in order to maintain the verb tenses and still have the sentence sound okay, although, now that I think about it, “taken-out boobs” is a pretty funny phrase.

The major difference between the English and the Japanese is that no people are explicitly involved in the Japanese sentence; all of the subjects are implied, and he uses the loaded word 勝手 (かって). "Prerogative" feels a little complicated, but I guess it does the job. 勝手 is often used as an adverb (勝手に〜) to mean "do ~ however I want" or "do ~ even though I’m thinking only of myself and not the Japanese collective spirit." One word that pops up in the dictionary is "arbitrary." So does "one’s own way" and "selfishness."

So yes, long story short, if you reveal your boobs, do not be surprised when people look at them.



I was fortunate to find a yoga teacher in the neighborhood where I live. She gives lessons out of an apartment just a five-minute walk from where I live – talk about convenient. Most of her students are older women, so the lessons aren’t that intense, but she does try and challenge us. Mostly it’s nice to sit and just focus for 90 minutes and also to meet some people in the neighborhood.

Like most instructors she does some of the pseudo-spiritual talk associated with yoga – prana, chakras, etc. Personally, I do believe in the power of the breath and breath control, but mostly as method of physical and mental fitness.

The best part of the lesson is corpse pose at the end. Just that total sense of relaxation, letting the body go into complete rest and having the brain focus on the breath. The teacher guides us into a nice meditative state by telling us to focus on different parts of the body starting with the toes and moving up the leg, the abdominal area, the chest and then the hands and arms. For some reason it’s super relaxing to lie completely still and move your concentration from body part to body part.

It’s also a useful vocabulary building exercise. I learned all the names for fingers and toes, so I thought I’d share them here:

親指(おやゆび)               thumb/big toe   
人差し指(ひとさしゆび)    index finger
中指(なかゆび)               middle finger
薬指(くすりゆび)            ring finger
小指(こゆび)                  pinky finger/little toe

Unlike English, those names are exactly the same for both fingers and toes, so there’s no difference between “big toe” and “thumb,” basically. Do the other toes even have names in English?

The most interestingly named finger is 薬指 – medicine finger. Wikipedia says this is because long ago, when medicines were all powdered, people used the ring finger to mix and apply different medicines. Apparently it also gets called 紅差し指 (because it is used to apply makeup?), 無名指 (finger with no name), 薬師指 (I guess the whole ‘mixing finger’ thing was institutionalized), and お姉さん指 (because girls don’t have wedding bands yet?).