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The Utility of Poles: Part 1

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I have little interest in anything steely or mechanical, but this word caught my eye and leapt right into my heart:

心棒 (shinbō: shaft, axle)     heart + rod

An axle is a rod at the heart of a car! (Well, an axle may not be the heart in the way that Tokyo is the beating heart of Japan. I guess the car engine performs that function. But the axle is certainly at the center of things.)

If 心棒 is an axle, what happens when you precede this compound with (YŌ, mochiiru: use, service)? The word 用心棒 should refer to the function of an axle or perhaps to rotation itself, shouldn’t it? No, that would be far too logical. Instead, we have this:

用心棒 (yōjinbō: bodyguard)     service + heart + tough guy

If you’ve been reading this blog religiously, including the comments, then you’ve recently seen 用心棒. The last kanji is by far the least common. Here are its vitals:

(BŌ: pole, rod, stick)

The Etymology of

Although this character usually means “pole, rod, stick,” its meaning shifts to “tough guy” in 用心棒.

You may also have seen the following yojijukugo that punkf thoughtfully supplied in a comment:

針小棒大 (shinshōbōdai: exaggeration)
     needle + little + pole + big

As I observed back then, “making a big pole out of a little needle” is the wonderful Asian version of “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

A Wago Version of This Phrase …


Colorful Expressions

It turns out that pops up in quite a few vivid phrases. I’m not sure why that is; I can’t think of a single interesting English expression featuring “pole,” “rod,” or “stick,” except perhaps for the saying about motivating people with carrots versus sticks. But I’ve heard it so many times that it no longer has any sense of fun for me. That’s the great thing about Japanese. I forget words two seconds after I encounter them, so they stay as fresh as can be!

On that note, the following expression seems quite appropriate:

箸にも棒にも掛からない (hashi ni mo bō ni mo kakaranai: hopeless, unmanageable, incorrigible)
     chopsticks + pole + to hang (negative form)

In other words, neither chopsticks nor a pole will work for a given task. The task is hopeless. I’m trying to imagine what that task might be. Retrieving something from under a car seat or a bed? Poking someone three seats ahead of you at a lecture or movie? As the last definition is “incorrigible,” I wonder if this expression isn’t so far from the English meaning of “stick” in carrot-stick references. That is, no matter whether I assault my husband with a chopstick or a pole, he never seems to improve. (Nevertheless, beatings will continue until morale improves.) A final guess: picking up slippery noodles with chopsticks could feel hopeless, even for the chopstick-adept Japanese.

Enough guessing. Here’s a native speaker’s take on this phrase: “It comes from soup (or udon or soba) with scanty content. You search and search but can find nothing that will hang off your chopsticks, spoon, or fork. All you have is the liquid. This phrase is applied to many things, such as an athlete who is hopelessly untalented or a dissertation with no content at all.”

That expression makes life looks grim. How about the next phrase?

犬も歩けば棒に当たる (inu mo arukeba bō ni ataru)
     dog + to walk + pole + to hit

The literal translation: “Even a dog will bump into a pole while walking.”

Breen provides these two figurative meanings, the second of which is more common:

1. No matter what you attempt, tragedy may befall you.
2. Good luck may come unexpectedly.

The first one makes perfect sense as an interpretation of the dog-pole-collision sentence. But the second? I hope the dog knows how to bring about unexpected luck after bashing into a pole.

Here’s another mystifying phrase:

棒に振る (bō ni furu: to make a mess of, sacrifice, waste)
     rod + to shake

A long time ago, we saw that in 男振り (otokoburi: manliness; good-looking, man + to shake, wave), men shake or wave something to achieve a heightened state of manliness. Is the same thing going on in 棒に振る? I’m not sure, but given the definitions, that shaking doesn’t appear to be working for anyone.

Sample Sentence with 棒に振る

A final expression, and one that’s much more positive:

鬼に金棒 (oni ni kanabō: making a strong person even stronger; as strong as can be)     horned monsters + metal + rod

This expression says that when the strong get stronger, that’s just like giving a powerful ogre a metal rod. Sounds like a negative thing, right? The sample sentence shows otherwise.

Sample Sentence with 鬼に金棒


A Spinoff Word

In 鬼に金棒, the last two kanji combine to mean “metal rod,” logically enough:

金棒 (kanabō: metal rod)     metal + rod

But if you add one more kanji, the resulting definitions are rather surprising:

金棒引き (kanabōhiki: (1) a gossip; (2) night watchman)
     metal + rod + to draw

I would say this gives night watchmen a bad rap, but with so many sticks flying about in today’s blog, perhaps it’s not a good idea to think about “raps.”

Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz!

Verbal Logic Quiz …

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