Idioms II: Phrases

第198課: Idioms II: Basic Expressions

     An idiom (慣用句) is a set expression that diverts to some degree from the literal definition from which it originally derives.

     It is very easy to comprehend an idiom when said in one’s native language. When a Japanese person thinks or hears a given set phrase, their mind naturally thinks of the idiomatic intent from its literal approach. So, no matter how deviant a phrase is from the literal arrangement of words, a connection is still visible and very much shows the cultural reasoning why a phrase means what it does idiomatically. But, a definition of a said idiom from another language is a different story and requires a two step process.

1. Understanding the literal meaning of the phrase
2. Understanding what is actually trying to be said

     Idioms is by far the most difficult aspect of the Japanese language. This is further compounded by the sheer number of idioms that exist in the language. On the spot translation without a culture translation can lead to a horrible chain of events caused by tripping into the ‘idiomatic cultural divide’. 

     Many idioms in Japanese derive from unique indigenous concepts such as martial arts and an array of ceremonies–tea, etc. The sheer number, though, of the idioms that exist can be reduced by realizing a few key concepts.

     Many idioms are only different from each other by a single synonymous and interchangeable particle or word. Understanding particles is an important element in understanding idioms and constructing them. At this point in IMABI, this should not be a problem. If it is a problem, you will have many problems as particle usage can greatly alter the meaning intended in an idiomatic expression.

     It is also important to realize that many idioms are only off by transitivity orientation. The nuance given off is really the only thing, then, that typically changes. First person is normally shown with transitive expressions and intransitive expressions show some sort of observation. 

     Something that is hard to decipher, especially in text, is the sense that an idiom is being used in. Here, context decides. For example, if you go to a jail and set everyone free, you would say 自由にした. But, if you were instead an interrogator of the prisoners, you would have most likely meant that you had them all at your mercy.

    Lastly, do not be completely overwhelmed by the expressions that are basically completely different from their literal meanings. You will just have to sit, think, study, and learn them.

In the chart below there are some of the many common idioms that are used in Japanese. Take note of their particle usages, what kind of noun and verb combinations that are made, and determine the degree of ‘idiomaticity’ there is between the literal and idiomatic definitions. Following the chart, there will be several example sentences to give you the cultural background to better apply them in your speech.


   Meaning Literal Meaning
 火に油を注ぐ ひにあぶらをそそぐ Add fuel to the fire Pour grease in a fire
 転ばぬ先の杖 ころばぬさきのつえ Look before you leap Twig of point that doesn’t fall
 金看板を掛ける きんかんばんをかける To assume importance To hang a billboard with gold
 草を結ぶ くさをむすぶ To return a favor To bind grass
 声が詰まる こえがつまる To speak in a choked voice For the voice to choke
 声を曇らす こえをくもらす To falter out To cloud the voice
 声を呑む こえをのむ To swallow one’s words To swallow one’s voice
 声を立てる こえをたてる To cry out To raise one’s voice
 暮しに困る くらしにこまる To be in financial trouble To be troubled in livelihood
 暮しを立てる くらしをたてる To make a living To raise a living
 芸が立つ げいがたつ To be a master of the arts For skill to stand
 芸は身を助く げいはみをたすく Art brings bread A skill will save yourself
 蔵が建つ くらがたつ To become a millionaire A storage house to be built
 車に切る くるまに切る To cut clockwise To cut in a car
 癖を直す くせをなおす To break a habit To fix a habit
 記録に載る きろくにのる To be recorded To appear in the records
 義理がある ぎりがある To be bound by duty To have duty
 看板を下す かんばんをおろす To close down shop To take down a billboard
 肝胆を出す かんたんをいだす To do with devotion To show one’s inner being
 慣例を残す かんれいをのこす To set precedent To leave behind a precedent
 勘定を留める かんじょうをとめる To run up bills To pile up bills
 嘴が黄色い くちばしがきいろい To be immature For the beak to be yellow
 嘴を入れる くちばしをいれる To interfere with To put in one’s beak
 嘴を鳴らす くちばしをならす To babble about To sound one’s beak
 気が焦る きがあせる To be impatient For the mind to be in a hurry
 気が荒い きがあらい To be quarrelsome For the mind to be violent
 気が進む きがすすむ To feel like doing For the mind to advance
 気が軽い きがかるい To be sociable For the mind to be light
 気が座る きがすわる To be at ease For the mind to sit
 気が置ける きがおける To feel ill at ease For the mind to be place-able
 気がそれる きがそれる To be distracted For the mind to divert
 気が多い きがおおい To be fickle To have many minds
 気が大きい きがおおきい To be generous To have a big mind
 気が腐る きがくさる To be dejected For one’s mind to rot
 気に持つ きにもつ To weigh on one’s mind To hold in one’s mind
 雲を凌ぐ くもをしのぐ To rise over the clouds To gain advantage of clouds
 組みになる くみになる To join forces To become a group
 組みを選ぶ くみをえらぶ To choose sides To choose groups
 訓練が行届く くんれんがいきとどく To be well-trained For training to be well-kept
 先がある さきがある To have potential To have a future
 先に立つ さきにたつ To be in the lead To stand ahead
 先を読む さきをよむ To look into the future To read the future
 気が戻る きがもどる To be turned off For the mind to return
 酒に痛む さけにいたむ To get dead drunk To ache in liquor
 酒に回される さけにまわされる To lose oneself to liquor To be winded in liquor
 酒を使う さけをつかう To be under the influence To use liquor
 肉が落ちる にくがおちる To lose weight For meat to drop
 匙を投げる さじをなげる To throw in the towel To throw a spoon
 鯖を読む さばをよむ To cheat in counting To read the mackerel
 最期を遂げる さいごをとげる To die a pitiful death To achieve one’s latter end
 策に富む さくにとむ To be resourceful To be rich in measures
 策を弄する さくをろうする To use artifice To play with measures
 工夫を凝らす くふうをこらす To work out a plan To concentrate devices
 気に留める きにとめる To keep in mind To keep in the mind
 災難を免れる さいなんをまぬかれる To avoid a disaster To avoid misfortune
 財布を叩く さいふをたたく To empty one’s purse To hit one’s purse
 財布を満たす さいふをみたす To fill one’s purse To fill one’s purse
 構想を練る こうそうをねる To rack one’s brains To draw up a framework
 座を冷ます ざをさます To ruin the mood To cool the seat
 才に溺れる さいにおぼれる To rely heavily on talent To drown in ability
 我を忘れる われをわすれる To get carried away To forget oneself
 割符が合う わりふがあう To meet eye to eye To match tallies
 草鞋を剥ぐ わらじをはぐ To end one’s journey To take off one’s sandals
 利に走る りにはしる To be eager to make profit To run to profits
 巧言を用いる こうげんをもちいる To flatter To use flatter
 涎が出る よだれがでる To be delicious To begin to drool
 運に任せる うんにまかせる Trust to Providence To entrust in destiny
 気前がいい きまえがいい To have an open hand To have good generosity
 歓心を買う かんしんをかう To buy favor To buy favor
 口火となる くちびとなる To trigger something To become the spark
 口火を切る くちびをきる To spark something To cut the spark
 攻撃を防ぐ こうげきをふせぐ To defend against an attack To prevent an attack
 看板が泣く かんばんがなく Not true to one’s name For the billboard to cry
 冠を曲げる かんむりをまげる To take offense To bend a crown
 気が急く きがせく To feel hard pressed For the mind to be hurried
 犠牲を払う ぎせいをはらう To make a sacrifice To pay a sacrifice
 気は心 きはこころ It’s the thought that counts The mind’s the heart
 気が重い きがおもい To feel depressed For the mind to be heavy
 気が散る きがちる To be distracted For the mind to be scattered
 気が乗らない きがのらない To not be in the mood For the mind to not be riding
 火事に遭う かじにあう To be in a fire To encounter a fire
 口車に乗る くちぐるまにのる To be cajoled into something To ride a cajoler
 傘に乗る かさにのる To be carried away To ride an umbrella
 過去に生きる かこにいきる To live in the past To live in the past
 仇を成す あだをなす To make enemies To give birth to enemies
 案に落つ あんにおつ To go according to plan To fall into a plan
 左右に托する さゆうにたくする To dodge an issue To make excuses left and right
 授業を休む じゅぎょうをやすむ To miss a class To take a rest from class
 処置に窮する しょちにきゅうする To be at a loss For a measure to be a loss
 塵界を脱する じんかいをだっする To retire from the world To get out of a dirty world
 気を引く きをひく To rouse excitement To draw in minds
 奇跡を現す きせきをあらわす To achieve a miracle To reveal a miracle
 期待に添う きたいにそう To meet expectations To live up to expectations
 隙に乗じる すきにじょうじる To catch off guard To take advantage of gaps
 逃げを打つ にげをうつ To attempt to escape To hit an escape
 気を揉む きをもむ To be anxious about To worry the mind
 恥を掻く はじをかく To be ashamed To scratch one’s shame
 鼻薬を嗅がせる はなぐすりをかがせる To offer a bribe To make…smell nasal spray
 幅に成る はばになる To gain prestige To become width
 百計が尽きる ひゃっけいがつきる To be at the end of the rope To exhaust all means
 顰蹙を買う ひんしゅくをかう To be frowned upon To buy frowning on
 不信を抱く ふしんをいだく To have a suspicion To hold a distrust
 管を巻く くだをまく To blurt out something To wind a pipe
 風致を害する ふうちをがいする To spoil the view To damage the scenic beauty
 武を争う ぶをあらそう To struggle for supremacy To fight martial affairs
 風呂を落とす ふろをおとす To empty a bathtub To drop a bathtub
 狐が落ちる きつねがおちる To come to one’s senses The fox falls
 狐に摘まされる きつねにつままされる To be baffled To be caught by the fox
 不平を並べる ふへいをならべる To whine over To line up dissatisfaction
 不評を買う ふひょうをかう To lose popularity To buy a bad reputation
 枕を重ねる まくらをかさねる To sleep together regularly To stack up pillows
 枕を砕く まくらをくだく To fret over To break a pillow
 身を誤る みをあやまる To go astray To misjudge the body
 見切りで買う みきりでかう To buy at a reduced price To buy with abandonment
 虫の居所が悪い むしのいどころがわるい To be in a bad mood The the bug is in a bad spot.
 虫が良すぎる むしがよすぎる To ask for too much For a bug to be too good
 肘鉄砲を食う ひじでっぽうをくう To get snubbed To eat at a rebuff
 馬力がある ばりきがある To have stamina To have horse power
 日が浅い ひがあさい To be only recent For the day to be shallow
 日を消す ひをけす To spend one’s time To erase the day
 火を被る ひをかぶる To be overcome with grief To wear fire
 舞台を踏む ぶたいをふむ To make one’s debut To step on stage
 平気を装う へいきをよそおう To keep one’s head To put on calmness
 気を負う きをおう To be eager To bear the mind
 芸がない げいがない To be good for nothing To have no art/skill
 声を殺す こえをころす To talk in a whisper To kill one’s voice

Example Sentences

     Despite that idiomatic phrases are typically stand-alone phrases that can be and are understood in isolation, it is helpful to see context with these phrases. Do not be confused with syntax as nothing out of the ordinary was shown. If you must, get familiar with the literal definitions to think of the phrases. 

1. おやつで腹の虫を抑えたらどうや。(Dialectical)
    What do you think about easing your emotions with a little snack?

2. なんとなくあいつ、虫が好かねぇ。(Vulgar)
    For some reason I just don’t like that guy.

3. うちの家はよく日が当たります。
    My house gets a lot of sun.

4. 火のないところに煙はたたぬ。(Slightly old-fashioned)
    There’s no smoke without fire.

5. 日をみるより明らかな問題だと強調しております。(Humble)
    I’m stressing that it is a problem as clear as day.

6. 社会で幅をきかせている。
    To be having a big influence and becoming prestigious in society.

7. 看板を下ろすとは廃業して店をたたむということである。(改まった)
    ”Kanban wo orosu” is to shut down a shop in discontinuing a business.

8. 塵界を脱して逃れた方がましだ。
    I’d rather retire and run away from the hustle and bustle of this world.

9. 5歳ほど鯖を読むのにFacebookアカウントを作る子供が多いそうです。
    There are supposedly a lot of kids that make a Facebook account that edge their age by a little 5 years.

10. 彼はいつも自分の思い通りじゃないと気がすまない嫌いがある。
     He has the tendency to always want his way.

11. コンピューターがついていると気が散ってちっとも勉強できないんだ。
     I can’t study at all when the computer is on.