Imikotoba (taboo words)

August 24, 2011

Imikotoba (忌み言葉), or taboo words, are words that are avoided  because they are believed to bring bad luck. The term can also mean the euphemism or replacement that is used instead of them (either an alternate pronunciation or a substitution word).

Some of these taboos are related to specific moments and rituals, while others are spread among the general population and condition the daily use of the language.

Those of you who understand some Japanese know how there are two series of numbers, one being based on Chinese reading or on-yomi (ichi, ni, san…) and the other on Japanese reading or kun-yomi (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu…). Now, the Chinese reading for “4” is shi, but Japanese people tend to avoid this pronunciation and substitute it with the kun-yomi for “4” which is yon; this use, so common to be the rule with many counters, is due to the fact that shi is also the pronunciation of the character 死, which means “death”.

Another example: the most common word for pear is nashi 梨. Nashi, however, is also the pronunciation of 無し, which means “none.”  To avoid the hazards of this association, the word ari-no-mi / 有りの実 (lit. “the fruit of abundance”) can also be used to refer to a pear.

Other substitutions are atarime (for dried squid, surume) and etekō (for monkey, saru, whose homophone means “depart” and is used as a euphemism for death).

Other words are to be avoided especially to preserve the purity of Shinto rituals. The Engi Shiki lists taboo words associated with the saigū (Chief Priestess) of the Grand Shrine of Ise and their replacements:

1. Inner seven (related to Buddhism)
buddha(s): nakago (“middle child,” i.e. seated in the center of the worship hall)
sutra: somekami (“dyed paper;” originally printed on yellow paper)
pagoda: araraki (Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese-based word, also pronounced araragi)
temple: kawarafuki (“tiled,” as in “tiled roof,” also pronounced kawarabuki)
monk: kaminaka (“long-haired,” also pronounced kaminaga)
nun: mekaminaka (“female long-haired”)
vegetarian food/abstinence: katashiki (“one tray”).
2. Outer seven (related to non-Buddhist words)
death: naoru (to recover)
illness: yasumi (to rest)
weeping: shiotare (“shedding salt”)
blood: ase (sweat)
to strike: atsu (caress)
meat: kusahira (vegetables and mushrooms)
grave: tsuchikure (clod of earth).
3. Others
Buddhist hall: koritaki (“incense burning”)
lay Buddhist (ubasoku): tsunohasu (“notch of arrow,” also pronounced tsunohazu).

Other taboos are still avoided by ordinary people in special events such as weddings and funerals.

For example, if you have to give a  speech at a weddings you should carefully avoid words such as  hanareru (離れる, to separate), kiru (切る, to cut) or wakareru (別れる, to split) because they can be seen as references to divorce; for the same reason, one should not use words that repeat the same sound, such as tabitabi (たびたび,  frequently) or iroiro (色々, various).

At funerals, one cannot use words that infer “something sad will happen again”, “your sould cannot rest in peace” or, again, repeated sounds. Some examples are tsuzuku (続く, to continue), ukabarenai (浮ばれない, your soul cannot rest), kaesugaesu (返す返す, repeatedly).

Also you cannot use words such as nagareru (流れる, to wash away) or kieru (消える, to disappear) when congratulating a pregnant woman, because they might sound like references to miscarriage.

There are taboo words for school tests as well: during the entrance exams season, one should avoid words that make one think to failure, such as chiru (散る, to disperse), suberu (滑る to slip over), ochiru (落ちる, to fall).


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