Over at the Log, a guest post by Nathan Hopson describes a really clever use of the Japanese language’s traditions of borrowings and abbreviations:

Reading and watching the news in Japanese, I quickly realized that the UN is something of an exception and that the media handle the alphabet soup of international organizations by giving the English acronym along with its Japanese translation the first time, and then simply using the English acronym thereafter. So the World Health Organization becomes WHO (世界保健機関), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is NATO (北大西洋条約機構). In conversation, many of these well-known bodies are simply referred to by their English acronyms; even the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers (連合国総司令部) is just called GHQ.

This phenomenon, which is a great example of the flexibility of the Japanese language, has recently been taken to an extreme by the Japanese musician and personality known as DAIGO, who is incidentally also the grandson of former Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru. His unique take on abbreviation is called “DAI語.” The pronunciation of this coinage is the same as his name; the last character means “language.” […]

In the first still, DAIGO is saying, “MM,” which has been helpfully glossed as マジムリ (maji muri). ムリ (or 無 理 in kanji) means something like, “No way!” and the マ ジ is an intensifier meaning “seriously.” In the second picture, he goes one step further: “SNSN” is glossed as shinsen (新 鮮; “fresh”). Below, “DGDG” is read as “Daigo no dai gosan” (DAIGOの 大誤算), or “DAIGO’s big miscalculation.”

There are more examples and background at the link; I’m sure there is no shortage of people decrying this as a mortal threat to the language (or to all that is decent and good), but I think it’s great. Have fun with language, that’s what it’s for! (Well, that and ordering breakfast.)


  1. Bathrobe says:

    I suspect that DAIGO (DAI語) has modelled his name on Daigo (醍醐), a Japanese Emperor who lived from 884 till 930. According to Wikipedia, the Emperor’s name was either based on the place where he was buried or on a dairy food (called Daigo) that he favoured. The name of the dairy food survives in modern Japanese as daigo-mi (醍醐味) meaning a “superb flavour”. I suspect that both of these lie in the background of DAIGO’s name.

    This would not be the first time that “Daigo” has been used in Japanese pop culture. A well-known Japanese band that was particularly active in the 1975-85 period was Godiego (ゴダイゴ). This name was transparently based on that of the Emperor Godaigo (1288–1339), roughly meaning Daigo the Second. The band are well known for the song “Monkey Magic“, associated with the TV series “Monkey“. The band had two American (or half-American) members, and that’s possibly why they used the spelling “Godiego = Go, die, go” for their English name — another bit of word play.

  2. Very interesting, thanks!

  3. Christopher S says:

    Daigo describes on his blog the meaning of his name.


    “My name Daigo [大湖] means “become a person with a heart as capacious as a large lake”.”

  4. I’m really curious about the character that means “language”–was it a picture of something originally? And if so, what?

    I wish I knew Japanese!

  5. If you mean 言 (the koto in 言葉 kotoba), it’s words emerging from a mouth as seen from above. See the graphical etymology at Wiktionary; the oracle-bone version is clearest.

  6. Bathrobe says:

    Without looking up any solid sources, my rather simplified understanding is that:

    言 is the semantic (the radical), indicating that the word/morpheme has something to do with ‘speaking’.

    吾 is the phonetic, related to the pronunciation go.

    吾 means ‘I’ or ‘oneself’, but this is irrelevant here. The only connection is the shared pronunciation between 語 and 吾. Needless to say, the original pronunciation in Chinese at the time the character was created would not have been go, but 語 and 吾 would have had a similar pronunciation.

    In many cases like this one, 吾 was just as likely the original character used to write go in the meaning of ‘speech, language’, under the rebus principle — borrowing another character to write a word on the basis of shared pronunciation. The 言 would then have been added later in order to disambiguate the pair. I’m not sure if this process applies in this particular case, but it was a very common one.

    I should add a further caveat, though. The actual phonetic here is 五 meaning ‘five’, and also pronounced go. It’s quite possible that 吾 ‘I, oneself’ was chosen as the phonetic rather than 五 ‘five’ for the simple reason that 吾 contains the mouth radical 口, which makes it more suitable as a character for something related to speech than 五 would be.

    Understanding the actual process by which the character 語 came about would need some solid scholarly checking. It’s possible that the actual history is more involved. But characters are not necessarily as mysterious as they look.

    (Heh, I just checked the Wiktionary entry for 語, and this is what it said:

    ‘As the original form of 語 (吾) was borrowed for other meanings, a new character was created to represent the original meaning of 吾. This new character was created by combining the original character with the semantic element 言.’ Which means that 吾 was actually borrowed to write other words, and the semantic element 言 was added to disambiguate 語 ‘speech’ from these other meanings.)

  7. Bathrobe says:

    My time to edit has run out, but the Wiktionary entry for go ‘I, myself’ etc. gives this:

    ‘Phono-semantic compound (形聲) Semantic 口 + phonetic 五’.

    This implies that 吾 originally meant ‘I, myself’, which appears to contradict the entry for 語, which says that 吾 originally meant ‘speech, language’.

    While the historical etymological details require research into ancient forms, the principle remains the same: 言 functions as the semantic, 吾 functions as the phonetic in this character.

  8. Bathrobe says:

    @ Christopher S

    Thanks for digging that up. I suspect that even this supposed etymology is just more playing with words. That’s because 湖 ‘lake’ is more normally pronounced ko in Japanese (e.g., 浜名湖 is hamanako, not hamanago).

    The etymology that he gives just makes DAI語 into a further play on words, with 語 meaning ‘language’ and DAI, in the Roman alphabet, standing in as an abbreviation of Daigo.

    Etymologically dai here is actually 大 dai ‘big’ (as in 大湖 ‘big lake’), so strictly speaking Daigo should be written 大語 ‘big language’. However, this sounds like ‘boasting’, which may be why DAI is used to write dai in preference to 大. DAI, in large Roman letters, thus stands for the name Daigo, almost like a kind of nickname.

    If you wanted to refer to his favourite things, you could come up with DAI好物 dai-kōbutsu ‘great favourite’, or, at a stretch, even DAI飯 or dai-meshi — although there is no such word as 大飯 in Japanese, which would spoil the effect somewhat. But the possibilities are endless.

    Needless to say, even DAI語 suggests 大語 ‘big language, big words’ in the background, so the whole thing is a string of word plays.

    And none of this rules out 醍醐 as a further layer of background meaning!

  9. From Mark Rosenfelder’s yingzi page (unfortunately with the yingzi replaced by geta marks — search on the page for “Thinking in yingzi” to see them in all their かわいいness):

    The nature of the writing system would encourage lexicographers (and English speakers) to think of everything in the language as built out of yingzi. There wouldn’t seem to be a great difference between “words” like storehouse, storage, restore and “expressions” like shoe store, store up, store detective, store manager; or between blackboard and black eye, or between alphabet and alpha male.

    Many morphemes that now live out a shadowy existence, forever bound to other morphemes, would take on an independent existence; for instance the volve in revolve, evolve, involve, devolve, which would have its own yingzi, and would seem as much a “word” or component of the language as the match in rematch, mismatch, unmatch. There would be a tendency to describe the meanings, vague or miscellaneous as they might be, for such characters.

    This might seem sensible and even wise for a morpheme like volve, which after all derives from a real Latin root meaning roll; but there would be other, more dubious applications. For instance, the son in person was represented by 〓, which happens to be the yingzi for son. It will be almost impossible not to assume that person derives from son; but historically it’s just a coincidence; person derives from Latin and has nothing to do with son.

    Worse yet, the –cuit of biscuit and circuit might be written with the same character (a derivative of kit), and a meaning sought for it– perhaps ’round’, since biscuits are round and circuits involve going round. Again, etymologically this is nonsense.

    Words, perceived as compounds, might lend themselves to abbreviation. After all, why write two yingzi when one will do, especially if it unmistakably implies its partner? For instance, language would be a two-character word 〓〓, each character defined only as part of this compound and used nowhere else in the language. If you’ve written 〓 lang, you must write 〓 gwidge next. You might as well just write 〓 lang and leave it at that. Ultimately of course 〓 will acquire a meaning of its own– namely language. And for consistency’s sake lexicographers might well give gwidge a meaning of its own as well–namely, language.

    The complexities of the writing system, the inherent interest of the pictorial elements, the cleverness inherent in graphic compounds like woods and the radical-phonetic system, and even sociological facts such as the time it takes to learn the system, and the fact that English speakers of all nations can use it whatever their native dialect, would also combine to give the writing system an overwhelming character of its own. It would be seen as more important than speech; there would even be a tendency to think of words as derived from characters rather than the other way around.

    If someone asks where a word comes from, we (now) think of its original phonetic form; we say for instance that language comes from French langage, itself derived from Latin lingua ‘tongue’, which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *dnghu. With the yingzi system, people would be tempted instead to give what we might call the graphic etymology. They’d say that lang derives from the speech radical and the gang phonetic, and that the latter is actually a picture of a gang– a reduplication of the man character. That is indeed where 〓 comes from, but not lang, which did not derive from it! (But it wouldn’t even be easy to make this point in yingzi– how do you distinguish lang from 〓 if you can’t even write “lang” without writing the character?)

  10. That’s such a brilliant page; thanks for reminding me of it.

  11. Jim (another one) says:

    “would take on an independent existence; for instance the volve in revolve, evolve, involve, devolve, which would have its own yingzi, and would seem as much a “word” or component of the language as the match in rematch, mismatch, unmatch.”

    Speaking as a former language teacher, this approach would work wonders with kids learning English vocabulary. There is already a notion of “word families” which the text books get wrong, but this approach takes the analysis all the way down to the minimal elements. It would really demystify this for kids.

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