JOK Notebook

Are You Scared or Scary?

Are you bored or boring? There's a world of difference between the two, and I'm sure you take pains to keep those statements straight. It's just as important to differentiate between being scared and being scary! However, the line between "frightened" and "frightening" is a bit blurred in Japanese. One can represent both with 怖い (こわい).

Take a quiz to see if you know how to make such distinctions:

1. 私は猿が怖いです。

私 (わたし: I); 猿 (さる: monkey)

Q: Who is scared—the speaker or the monkey?


2. 怖い顔 (こわいかお)

Q: Is this about a frightened face or a frightening face?


3. 物怖じ (ものおじ)

Q: Is this about a scary thing or a fear of things?

I'll block the answers with a preview of today's new essay, which is essay 1749 on 怖 (fear; scary; afraid).

Okay, now for the answers:

1. 私は猿が怖いです。

私 (わたし: I); 猿 (さる: monkey)

Q: Who is scared—the speaker or the monkey?
A: The speaker is. This sentence means "I’m scared of monkeys."

2. 怖い顔 (こわいかお)

Q: Is this about a frightened face or a frightening face?
A: It's about a frightening face. It means "grim face; angry look."

3. 物怖じ (ものおじ)

Q: Is this about a scary thing or a fear of things?
A: It's about a fear of things. It means "cowardice; timidity; bashfulness."

This is a tough issue, isn't it? Part of the problem comes down to the impossibility of knowing whether the first kanji in a compound is modifying the second or vice versa. If you want to go with statistics, it's safe to assume that the first kanji is modifying the second, but this is by no means a foolproof strategy.

Another bit of the issue has to do with particles, at least in the case of 私は猿が怖いです. The は should be a good indication that the subject is 私, and the が should clue us into the source of fear. I don't mean, of course, that が always points to a source of fear! But people tend to precede 怖い with the source of fear + が or は.

The particle they choose depends on the subtleties of what they’re trying to convey. It's quite possible to say 私は猿は怖いです, but this could express a comparison—namely, “I'm scared of monkeys, but I'm not scared of other animals.”

Here's another example with は in that pre-怖い position:

Dogs are scary because they run free, whereas lions and tigers are caged.

犬* (いぬ: dogs); だって (because); ライオン (lions); トラ (tigers);
檻 (おり: cage, pen, where 檻 is non-Joyo); 入っている (はいっている: to be in); 放し飼い (はなしがい: letting run free (e.g., dog, child))

In this case, says my proofreader, 犬が怖いよ would not work.

Aside from particles and the structure of compounds, we find ambiguity in the very meaning of 怖い, which, as I said, can mean both "scary" and "scared." I would have interpreted 怖い顔 (こわいかお) as "frightened face," but in fact that face frightens others. For "frightened face," one uses 怖がっている顔 (こわがっているかお).

A good rule of thumb: take 怖い as "scary" (which is sometimes true) and 怖がる as "to be scared" (which is always true).

Another useful rule:

There is no need to be scared of making mistakes.

失敗 (しっぱい: mistakes)

That sentence comes from the essay, not from my own personal victories in this area, I assure you!

Speaking of sentences from essay 1749, I want to share something fun. Here's a sentence that features 恐怖 (きょうふ: fear):

She turned pale with fear.

彼女 (かのじょ: she);
青ざめる (あおざめる: to become pale)

Judging from the use of 青, didn't she actually turn green or blue?!

The essay also includes this word:

暗闇 (くらやみ: darkness)

I like spotting two instances of the 音 shape in that compound. English speakers refer to the sounds of silence, but here we have the sounds (音) of darkness (暗闇)!

So that's it for kanji matters for today, but I wanted to let you know about some exciting additions to the site.

If you go to a Character Home Page such as the one for 怖, look at the Mini Profile to the right. Where it lists the radical, you'll see 忄. That's nothing new; we have presented that information since the beginning. After the 忄 you can now see the radical number 61 and the name of the radical, "heart." Best of all, there's a link to click, and if you do, you'll go straight to Radical Note 61, which is all about that radical.

Before, one needed three links and some scrolling to take the same journey. I have longed for this kind of connectivity. It reminds me of great subway systems, such as those in Tokyo and London, where you can travel between two reasonably distant points in any number of ways because the planners thought to have multiple rail lines travel through the same stations. By contrast, where I live, the subway lines essentially form an X. You're bound to travel through the crotch of that X many more times than you care to do.

Let's exit the subway and return to kanji matters! This new functionality completes a loop in another sense. From the "Related Essays" box in Radical Note 61, you can see all the kanji with on-duty "heart" radicals. Now if you click on those links, other links on those Character Home Pages will bring you back.

Because I've been looking at these issues through new eyes, I've also realized something cool that's been there all along. On the pages for 1749, as well as 1532 (憎: to hate) and 1837 (慢: arrogant), the Mini Profile lists the radical as 忄. But on the pages for 1196 (恵: blessing) and 1639 (怒: anger), it shows that the radical shape is 心. (As Radical Note 61 explains, these are different shapes for the same radical.) I didn't realize that the Mini Profile was so detailed!

There's yet another development. On the home page, you'll now find ways of following us on both Facebook (see the left box) and Twitter (on the lower right). If you "like" our page on Facebook, you'll have a new way of keeping up with all the postings. Better yet, your face could show up in the pictures on the Joy o' Kanji page! That would be a most welcome addition!

Have a wonderful weekend!


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