第216課: The Body II: Idioms and Proverbs
Given how expression-rich Japanese is overall, it is only natural that there would be hundreds of idiomatic expressions for the body as well. This lesson will be broken down by body part. Phrases that are most important to any learner will be introduced first whereas obscure, old-fashioned, and/or literary phrases will be mentioned last. Each section will also include a chart of four-character idioms (四字熟語) that utilize said body part to impress your friends.
※When multiple body parts are used in a single expression, the expression will be listed in the section of the first body part mentioned. For example, 頭隠して尻隠さず is under “頭を使った表現” rather than “尻を使った表現.”
※Each expression will be given a meaning (意味) that’s either an equivalent or at least a natural rendition in English and an explanation (解説) which explains the actual Japanese wording.
※With important exceptions in which there is a high degree of personification, body idioms which involve animals will be avoided in this lesson and discussed in a separate lesson.
※This lesson is under construction and is only viewable to members.
■Set Phrases 慣用句
意味: To be no match for
解説: This expression indicates that the person one is referring to is a superior who you cannot defy. This may also be used when you feel a sense of inferiority or obliged toward someone. The superior in question is an object of respect, but due to the emphasis on one’s own inferiority, it is not to be used as a compliment. However, it can still be used in business/honorific circumstances so long as there is no overbearing context.
意味: To be thickheaded
解説: One’s way of thinking is not flexible, having a bias towards how one views things. Individuals described by this phrase are obsessed over their own ideas, and it’s difficult for them to accommodate.
派生語：頭が固まる (to be stuck in one’s ways)
意味: To be flexible/open-minded
解説: The opposite of 頭が固い, people of this temperament are able to take actions that fit the circumstances.
意味①: To have a headache (literal)
意味②：To rack one’s brains (idiomatic)
解説: Aside from literally referring to headaches, this phrase may also indicate worry over problems that are difficult to solve.
意味①: To feel heavy in the head (literal)
意味②: To be sick with worry (idiomatic)
解説: This phrase is quite similar to 頭が痛い, but the degree of worry is more severe.
意味: To be sharp(-minded)
解説: Such people are quick at thinking up solutions. This phrase is akin to street smarts. People of this nature need not actually be highly intelligent, but they’re able to make solutions on their own and can use their experiences and opinions when the time calls for it.
意味: To be bright/smart
解説: Although very similar to 頭が切れる, they are not entirely synonymous. You can in fact be very smart but not sharp-minded. 頭が良い focuses on the information that someone knows.
派生語: 地頭が良い (to be smart by nature)
意味: To be dumb
解説: The opposite of 頭が良い.
意味: To admire greatly/to salute
解説: Though structurally similar to 頭が上がらない, their meanings are quite different. Rather than showing a sense of inferiority, 頭が下がる shows how one is impressed with another person.
意味①: To bow
意味②: To apologize
意味③: To be impressed
解説: Whereas 頭が下がる is solely idiomatic, 頭を下げる is taken more literally, but the biggest difference is in that the doer of 頭を下げる is lowering their head willfully, although the act of lowering one’s head is a major cultural aspect of both bowing and apologizing. As for ③ which is synonymous with 頭が下がる, the sense of how impressed one is does differ. With 頭を下げる, there is still that sense of willfully showing that one is impressed. When 頭が下がる is used, the speaker is just so impressed that it’s almost as if it’s an involuntary action.
意味: To cool down one’s anger
解説: This phrase is a more literal phrasing of what is meant by “to chill out.” It’s thought that when one is worked up that the head itself is warmed up from all the blood rushing back. However, it is best not to literally cool down one’s head as that may cause more harm than good to the body.
派生語: 頭が冷えた (to be calmed down)
意味①: To rear its head
意味②: To come to the fore
解説: This phrase may be literally interpreted as “to raise one’s head,” but it usually has some figurative nuance as well such as an idea/force to be reckoned with emerging to the forefront.
類義語: 浮かび上がる①, 台頭する②
意味: To come to mind
解説: It’s important to remember that 頭 is often used to mean “mind” and not just the anatomical “head.”
意味: To puzzle over
解説: Also possible with the verb 絞る, “squeezing” and “twisting” the mind is the same thing as wracking one’s mind over something.
意味: To be at wits’ end
解説: Imagine seeing someone holding their head out of frustration and at a loss of what to do.
意味: To get one’s head around
意味（～ない）: To know no better/be muddleheaded
解説: The mind either runs well or it doesn’t. However, this phrase may also be taken more literally as “for the head to rotate” depending on the context.
①To get mad
②(Alcohol/drugs/disease) to get to one’s head.
解説: Its literal interpretation usually involves substances or illness. In any case, the state of mind of an individual described by 頭にくる is concerned, whether it be acting out of anger or being out of whack.
意味: To bury one’s head in the sand
解説: Literally, “hiding one’s head without hiding one’s arse.” This proverb evokes a scene in which someone only hides the bad when the intention was to hide everything.
意味: The boss has to set a good example.
解説: Literally, “if the head does not move, the tail too will not move.” This proverb relates to when a superior takes action, then those below him too shall act.
意味: It is hard to please all parties.
解説: This proverb relates to situations in which both sides won’t go well. The phrase literally means “if you cover your head, your arse will be lifted up.”
意味: Disaster lies above one’s head.
解説: Danger and disaster starting with one’s heading catching on fire would be quite an omen, no?
意味: Mind is the man.
解説: This proverb chastises people of the likes who shave their head to be a “monk” but don’t have the heart of the monk. It’s a command to be true at heart more so than one’s outward appearance.
意味: To have a big start but end not so well
解説: 頭でっかち means “big-headed/top-heavy.” 窄む means “to get narrower.” 窄み may be replaced with the synonymous 窄(すぼ)り.
意味: Untrustworthy person
解説: A reference to people who steal things from the home. In this phrase, dark-haired people are being liken to rats.
意味: Worry about the now.
解説: Rather than thinking about the future, it’s most important to solve the problems already affecting you.
意味: The old coachman loves the crack of the whip.
解説: Even balding from old age doesn’t stop people from having love affairs.
■Four-Character Idioms 四字熟語
意味: Gathering taxes from all over
解説: 頭会 means “head count.” 箕斂 means “scooping up with a winnowing basket.” In this idiom, people are being likened to agricultural bound. Their fruit is taxes.
意味: Becoming elderly
解説: 頭童 literally refers to a child’s shaven head, but in this idiom it refers to the hair disappearing. 歯豁 refers to the space between teeth becoming all over the place as one gets older.
意味: Being very fierce
解説: This idioms refers to a soldier covered in armor, thus bronze heads (銅頭) and iron foreheads (鉄額).
意味: Cosmetic changes
解説: 改頭 means “to adjust one’s head” and 換面 means “to turn one’s face.” This idiom refers to when only the surface of something is changed and not its substance.
解説: All humans have round heads (円頭) and square feet (方足).
→Same as 頭でっかち尻窄み
意味①: To have one’s hair shaved
意味②: To put one’s hair down
解説: The verb 下ろす has the meaning of “to cut off” things that grow, and hair is certainly something that grows and is in need of trimming. When one removes all of one’s hair, that’s one prerequisite of the transition to becoming a monk/nun. Now, context is key. If the situation has nothing to do with monasteries, it’s almost certainly being used in the sense of ②.
意味: To do something with painful reluctance.
解説: Very few people like having their hair pulled back.
意味: Without a moment’s delay
解釈: The correct reading of this phrase is かんはつをいれず, but many people do in fact pronounce it as かんぱつをいれず. This is used as an adverbial phrase for describing situations that are very pressing without a moment’s delay. It comes from the notion that there isn’t even enough room for a single hair to intervene.
意味: Close call
解釈: This is used as an adverbial phrase and is related to above. In fact, you can also say 間一髪を容れずに. Interestingly, 間一髪 is read as かんいっぱつ.
意味: Filial piety begins with not harming one’s own body as one’s entire body was given by one’s parents.
解釈: This proverb is rather self-explanatory. 髪膚 refers to both the hair and skin.
意味: Glossy black hair
解説: To have black hair which is as glossy as young leaves.
意味: To be contrary.
解説: Let’s rile up people’s nerves, or should we say, hair whorls.
■Four-Character Idioms 四字熟語
意味: Elderly person with short hair
解説: The hair of the elderly is likened to seeds that have just sprouted.
意味: Hair-splitting anger
解説: One is so angry that the hair itself is sticking up.
解説: It’s 訓読 rendition is 怒髪天を突く or 怒髪冠を衝く. This phrase comes from an ancient Chinese legend. When the Emperor Gaozu of Han and Xiang Yu, the King of Chu, met, one of Xiang’s generals was ordered to kill Gaozu with a sword dance as a pretext. When a retainer of Gaozu heard of this, he was so angry that his hair stood up and his eyes were flaming, which ultimately resulted in the assassination attempt failing.
■Five-Character Idioms 五字熟語
意味: White hair is 3000 jou.
解説: Over-exaggeration. This phrase can even be used as an adjective.
意味: To put heads together
解説: This phrase is equivalent to getting into a huddle, literally “bringing everyone’s foreheads together.”
意味: To work diligently.
解説: This can be literally and naturally interpreted in English as “to work up a sweat.”
■Four-Character Idioms 四字熟語
意味: To be impudent
解説: Someone who is shameless will have a thick-skinned face. It must be noted that the phrases listed below are far more common than 顔が厚い itself. These phrases all derive from the Chinese poetry compilation 詩経.
意味: To have clout
解説: You know when your face has an effect.
意味: To be well-connected.
解説: 顔 often has the meaning of “influence/notoriety” when used in idioms.
意味: To be all gathered
解説: Everyone’s faces are gathered.
類義語: 顔を揃える = To gather everyone
意味: To be widely recognized
解説: This phrase literally means, “for one’s face to sell.”
意味①: To make an appearance
意味②: To attend
解説: Show your face.
意味: To grant a person a moment
解説: This phrase is used to describe being asked to appear and then doing so.
意味: To make oneself known to the public
解説: Sell your face to be known.
類義語: 顔が売れる = To be popular/widely known
意味: To save face
解説: Build that image.
類義語: 顔が立つ = For one’s status to be maintained
意味: To make somebody lose face
解説: This phrase is used to describe ruining someone’s public reputation.
類義語: 顔が潰れる = To have lost face/honor.
意味: To disgrace someone
解説: Dirtying someone’s face would certainly dishonor them.
意味①: To keep up acquaintance.
意味②: To meet up two people who don’t know each other.
解説: Bring faces together.
意味: To wince
解説: Envision a facial expression that’s worried/sad.
意味: To burn with shame
解説: Imagine being so embarrassed that your face is as red as fire.
意味: Nonchalant look
解説: Though verb 食う is indeed the vulgar form of “to eat,” this is not the only meaning the verb has. In fact, it is quite productive in set phrases, and it is not possible to replace it with 食べる in these phrases. In this phrase, 食う bears the meaning of “to snatch food.” You’re giving off a face of not having done so even though you did. This is extended to situations where you know but pretend you don’t, which can also be expressed with the phrases 素知らぬ顔 and 知らん顔.
意味: Long face
解説: The verb 浮く has a meaning of “to be cheerful.” Here, the face described is not so.
意味: Too ashamed to meet
解説: You don’t even have the face to be next to that person you’re so ashamed.
意味: To be unable to face others
解説: You’re unable to show your face in public.
意味: To gauge someone’s feelings
解説: You can tell a lot about how someone feels from their complexion.
意味: To put to shame
解説: For an opponent to go pale out of surprise, shock, and/or fear. 顔色 is read as がんしょく instead of かおいろ in this expression.
意味: Sour look
解説: This expression derives from the notion of the tremendous countenance of the Buddha as endless grace (広大無辺の功徳) resides above His head, specifically the 仏頂尊 rendition which is depicted as being filled with majesty (威厳) and wisdom (知恵). The Buddha’s face stays constant, but this can also be seen as lacking emotion, and in a sense, a surly face.
解説: 燕額 refers to a jaw that resembles a swallow. 虎頭 refers to a head that resembles that of a tiger. Together, these words are combined to represent a person of high status who you can visually see their dignity. Here, 頷 is used to mean “jaw.”
意味①: To have an acute sense of smell
意味②: To have a good nose (figuratively)
解説: This phrase is both literal and figurative as it would be in English.
意味①: To have a prominent nose
意味②: To be proud
解説: When people are proud of themselves, their nose tends to be pointed high up.
意味: To be full of pride.
解説: This phrase has the nuance of being proud of outstripping others. This phrase shares its origin with 鼻が高い. Though noses being pointed high is a sign of being prideful, this phrase actually came from China where locals attributed this behavior to Westerners. Conversely, this is also how Westerners thought of the Chinese who had lost the Opium Wars despite having touted China as the superior nation.
意味: To be soft on (women)
解説: This phrase can occasionally be still interpreted literally. In which case, 鼻の下 is the area below the nostrils and the upper lip. The saying comes from the idea that men who had a larger space between their nose and lips were looser towards women, perhaps due to dropping their jaws in astonishment too much. Though dictionaries will still list this phrase as being associated with male-heterosexual attraction, the phrase can be attributed to any man regardless of their actual orientation.
意味①: To coo at
意味②: To snort
解説: 鳴らす means “to make a sound,” and when used with “nose,” that sound is called a “snort.” The first meaning is what is figurative, which is often used in contexts when someone is acting like a spoiled child.
意味①: To assail the nostrils
意味②: To go nose-to-nose (uncommon)
解説: The more figurative second meaning is actually not that seen in modern speech.
意味: For one’s nose to wrinkle
解説: This expression is synonymous with 鼻を突く. A stench is so strong that your nose bends.
例文: 私が去年訪れた深圳 の工場から出ている汚染水は、年中、鼻が曲がるほどの異臭がしている。
意味①: To be sick and tired with.
意味②: To stink
解釈: Although this can phrase refer to being stimulated by awful smells, it can also describe feeling unease at hearing or even seeing what you’ve grown tired of–“to get up someone’s nose.”
意味: To humble someone
解説: Most of the time this is figurative, but someone might actually be serious about breaking your nose if you’re in need of getting your nose punched.
意味: To snub someone
解説: To not pay attention to what someone else is saying and handle that person coldly.
意味: To snicker
解説: To scoff and look down at someone.
意味: Disgusting fellow
解説: People who constantly hold their nose are uncouth.
意味: To crush an opponent’s self esteem.
解説: If you were to break someone’s nose, that would certainly take that person down a peg.
対義語: 鼻っ柱が強い ＝ To be hard-nosed/strong-willed
意味①: To have heavy breathing (nasal)
意味②: To be proud
解説: Though it can be taken literally, it may figuratively refer to someone having strong enthusiasm.
意味: To sound out a person’s feelings
解説: Figuring out a person’s intent or mood may very well be ascertainable from just how that person is breathing through the nose.
意味: To put on a triumphant air
解説: 小鼻 are the wings of the nose. Twitching them makes it look like you’re boastful.
類義語: 小鼻を膨らます = to flair one’s nostrils
意味: To be blunt
解説: 括る is actually the wrong verb. The expression used to contain こくる, an old variant of 擦る meaning “to rub.” Rubbing the nose with wood, at any rate, would certainly make someone curt to say the least. Why would anyone do this? In the Edo Period, using wooden sticks was the only way for people without money to wipe their nose in the absence of tissue paper.
意味①: To be foul-smelling
意味②: To be intolerable
解釈: Though it can refer to smells that are so horrid one can barely hold onto one’s nose, it can also refer to behavior that is just as repugnant.
意味: To be the first to know about something
解説: You know you have sharp ears when you’re the first to know.
意味①: To have an earache.
意味②: To be painfully true.
解説: Sometimes the truth hurts the ears.
意味: To have an ear for music
解説: When referring to the ears/eyes, 肥える means “to be discerning.”
意味: To be earsplitting
解説: Same as English.
意味: Welcome news
解説: The verb 寄る means “to draw near,” so imagine news that would pleasing to the ears.
意味: Great surprise
解説: Water in your ears from when you’re sleeping would certainly be a surprise.
意味: In one ear and out the other
解説: Same as English.
意味①: To remember everything one hears
意味②: To quickly hear into other people’s secrets
解説: You can’t hide anything from 閻魔大王 (the ruler of Hell).
意味: You never know who is watching or listening.
解説: Walls have ears; doors have eyes.
意味: To lose one’s means of livelihood
解説: Aside from literally referring to the “mouth,” 口 may also refer to a position as in work.
解説: 幅ったい is a rather emphatic adjective meaning “wide.” When someone has a big mouth and doesn’t even know their one place, they are 口幅ったい. This phrase is actually quite common in humble expressions.
意味: The pot calling the kettle black.
解説: In Japanese, the goop in the eye laughing at the snot in the nose is something to take note of.
類義語: See 猿の尻笑い below.
意味: To complete most of something
解説: The eyes and noses are what makes up one’s looks. Alternatively, this resembles when things are going relatively well. It can be literally translated as, “the nose and eyes are in place.”
意味①: To be very shrewd
意味②: To be fast and not overlook anything.
解釈: 抜ける usually refers to things being missing, but some believe this phrase to come from a legend in which a worker creating the infamous large statue of Buddha got stuck inside while constructing the final eye that had been forgotten about and had to escape by going from the eye and existing the nose.
意味: In front of one’s eyes
解釈: If something is right next to one’s eyes and nose, that is definitely point-black range. However, it must be noted that this phrase is used figuratively and is prone to hyperbole.
類義語: 目と鼻（の間）, 目睫の間
意味: Love is blind/Love sees no faults
解説: Even pockmarks can look like dimples to the eye’s of someone who loves you.
意味: You can’t solve a problem without making some sacrifice.
解説: Your abdomen holds your internal organs, making it more important than your back. For a moment, let’s forgive the people who coined this phrase from not knowing how crucial the spinal cord is and consider how it must have felt to treat the two just as valuable. In times of sacrifice, though, necessity knows no bounds, and let’s not forget that it wasn’t too long ago that 切腹 was also heavily practiced.
意味: To do something hand in hand with someone
解説: Same as English.
意味: To turn on one’s heel
解説: The Japanese phrase is not much different. One is literally turning one’s heels the direction one had come.例文: 薫さんは片手をあげてまた明日と言って踵を返していった。
■Four-Character Idioms 四字熟語
意味: To have a guilty conscience
解説: Having a bruise on your shin is certainly something one would want to hide. The original form of this expression was 脛に疵持てば笹原走らぬ. The leaves of certain bamboo grasses hurt to the touch, and so if your lower feet are covered in injuries, you wouldn’t be able to simply walk through without running. The latter part of the expression was likely lost to time due to 走らぬ being equivalent to 走ろう but being confused for the opposite meaning. This phrase can also be likened to shady people running off from the sound of bamboo grass blowing through the wind as it would be a reminder of how they don’t want their bruised shins exposed.
解説: This phrase originates from 傍らいたし. Many would point out that 片腹 is incorrectly rendered as 片腹, but the word 傍ら itself is derived from that literal breakdown. Nonetheless, the word 痛い is not being used in the sense of “pain.” Rather, the idiom describes a situation in which the onlooker feels uncomfortable and/or sorry about how strange and awful the other person(‘s situation) is.
■Four-Character Idioms 四字熟語
意味: Drunken with ash, the stomach must be washed anew.
解説: To regret everything up to the present and committing to a fresh start.
意味: To have guts
解説: The gut even in English has always been thought to be where bravery originates. In this expression, 肝 more so literally means 胆力, which in term is still translated as “courage/nerve” rather than “liver strength.”
意味: The pot calling the kettle black.
解説: Regardless of how hilarious its own arse might be, a monkey is quick to laugh at what his fellow monkey’s arse looks like.