JOK Notebook

Talking Nonsense

Do we spend enough time thinking about nonsense?

I began to do so after considering this book title for possible inclusion in essay 1416 on 冗 (surplus):

「西方冗土   カンサイ帝国の栄光と衰退」

帝国の (ていこくの: imperial); 栄光 (えいこう: glory); 衰退 (すいたい: decline)

The subtitle translates straightforwardly as The Decline of Kansai's Imperial Glory, but the main title is trickier. I figured 西方冗土 was a play on the homophonous 西方浄土 (さいほうじょうど: Western Pure Land (Amitabha's Buddhist paradise)), and it is. Before receiving confirmation about that, though, I scrutinized the Amazon synopsis for clues, finding this phrase:


The book is an essay collection, which explains the エッセイ集 (エッセイしゅう), but what's the deal with ヨタ? Ah, it corresponds to 与太 (よた: idle talk; nonsense), coming from the male given name 与太郎 (よたろう), which often appears in rakugo (落語, らくご: story that ends with a joke or a play on words) as the name of a fool or liar. The colloquial term 与太を飛ばす (よたをとばす) means “to talk nonsense."

Really? The same 飛ばす that enables birds and planes to fly? Yes, this verb has a dizzying array of meanings:

飛ばす (とばす: (1) to let fly; make fly; send flying; blow off (e.g., in the wind); launch; fire; hurl; shoot; (2) skip over; leave out; omit; drop (e.g., a stitch); (3) run fast; drive fast; gallop; (4) spray; splash; spatter; (5) say without reservation; call out (e.g., a jeer); rattle off (e.g., a joke); (6) spread (e.g., a rumor); circulate; send out (a message); issue (e.g., an appeal); (7) transfer (to a less important post); send away (e.g., to a provincial branch); demote; (8) dispatch quickly (e.g., a reporter); (9) get rid of; burn off (alcohol); (10) attack (e.g. with a leg maneuver); (11) do vigorously; do roughly; do energetically)

When it comes to 与太を飛ばす, definition 1 is likely the relevant one; in talking nonsense, one lets it fly.

In writing essay 1416 on 冗, I actually encountered 飛ばす a second time. I'm talking about this phrase:

冗談を飛ばす (じょうだんをとばす: to crack a joke; tell a joke)
     joke (1st 2 kanji) + to rattle off

As the breakdown indicates, this 飛ばす means “to rattle off (e.g., a joke),” corresponding to definition 5 above. Here's a way of using the phrase:

My friend is always joking around.

僕 (ぼく: I, for men); 友達 (ともだち: friend)

So 飛ばす can launch both jokes and nonsense. 

Speaking of nonsense, if you heard incomprehensible words, which language would you mention by way of comparison? For some reason I always think of Swahili (as I know nothing about it), but English speakers are known to complain, "It's all Greek to me."

This is by no means a universal comparison. The Greeks apparently call incomprehensible comments Chinese! So do the French. And the Chinese in turn compare confusing words to a heavenly script. A terrific web page breaks it down country by country. To my surprise, Hebrew is often the standard for what can't be understood. 

The Japanese most commonly use the following term for this state of affairs.

ちんぷんかんぷん or チンプンカンプン (珍紛漢紛 or 珍糞漢糞: unintelligible language; incoherent language; talking nonsense; "all Greek to me"; double Dutch; (something) incomprehensible; babble; gibberish; jargon; gobbledygook)

The kanji combinations are ateji that serve to carry the appropriate sounds. Speaking of appropriate, it's clever that the second rendering contains the non-Joyo 糞 (poop), which I find a fitting metaphor if something has no value to the recipient.

As for the origin of ちんぷんかんぷん, my proofreader "Lutlam" says it comes from how Chinese sounded to Japanese people in the past. He adds that ちんぷんかんぷん might be a Japanese approximation of the sound of the Mandarin term 聽不懂, 看不懂 (tīngbudǒng, kànbudǒng: unable to make sense of what one's hearing or seeing).

Unlike most people in other countries, then, the Japanese don't refer to a specific language when deeming something incomprehensible.

By the way, Lutlam brought this issue to my attention after engaging in a Twitter discussion about the topic. Check out the thread if you want practice reading Japanese.

One more thing. Several sources refer to "double Dutch" as a way of saying "all Greek to me." I've never heard "double Dutch" in my life but found this definition: "unintelligible or garbled speech or language."

As to the origin, I saw various explanations on Quora, some alluding to how incomprehensible Dutch or German speakers once sounded in England. 

But I also learned that "double Dutch" refers to a jump rope game wherein one has to skip over two ropes moving in opposite directions. 

Now, why anyone would call those double ropes "Dutch" is beyond me. That is, it's Greek/Chinese/Hebrew to me or just plain ちんぷんかんぷん!

Here's a sneak preview of essay 1416 on 冗 (surplus):

Catch you back here next time!


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