Seken-zure.

The estimable Bathrobe sent me his translation of this NHK News story, which, as he says, has a nice prescriptivist ending:

More than half had a mistaken understanding of seken-zure

September 24

A survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs found that more than half of respondents misunderstood the term seken-zure to mean ‘deviating from common ideas’ instead of the original meaning ‘wise in the ways of the world’. [Note: seken-zure, derived from 世間 seken ‘society, the world’ and 擦れる sureru ‘to rub’, refers to the state of having become crafty and sly due to various kinds of experience in this world. This has obviously been reinterpreted as 世間 seken ‘society, the world’ and ずれる zureru ‘to deviate’.]

The Agency conducts an annual study in order to determine how Japanese usage has changed. This time the survey covered 2028 men and women over the age of 16 across the country.

When asked the meaning of seken-zure, 35.6% chose the original meaning of ‘having become cunning through experience in the world’ while 55.2% chose ‘separated from the thinking of the world’.

In response to the same question in a survey nine years ago, half chose the original meaning. In the current survey, 85% of people in their teens, 80% of people in their twenties, and more than half of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s chose the incorrect meaning.

In another example, while the original meaning of manjiri to mo sezu (まんじりともせず) is ‘staying wide awake’, 51.5% of respondents incorrectly understood it to mean ‘staying motionless’.

In addition, 43.7% of respondents chose ‘reluctantly’ as the meaning of the expression yabusaka de wa nai in preference to the original meaning of ‘willingly’.

Kishimoto Orie, chief of the National Language department of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, said, ‘Differences in the understanding of meanings between generations can cause miscommunication. We would like people to be aware of the original meaning.’

It reminds me of Anatolii Koni’s rage a century ago at Russians using obyazatel’no to mean ‘obligatorily, without fail’ rather than ‘obligingly, courteously,’ which is what it meant in his day (he was born in 1844).

Comments

  1. Russians using obyazatel’no to mean ‘obligatorily, without fail’ rather than ‘obligingly, courteously,’ which is what it meant in his day

    A very similar German word gefälligst has had a similar fate. It was, and still is, a kind of “advert” (which I prefer to say instead of “adverb”, because it doesn’t clear “modify a verb in a sentence”, but is more like a paratactic gesture relating to what is being said in the sentence).

    In the 19C gefälligst emanated the sense “[if it’s not any trouble]”, “[if you would be so kind]”, in a sentence that suggested or requested something. Nowadays in such sentences it emanates the sense “[you’ll do it if you know what’s good for you]”.

  2. On obyazatel’no: the word usage might be reflecting the transition from an autocracy describing itself in a non-binding way (“noblesse oblige”), to a legal system in which an obligation once contracted is enforceable.

  3. It’s pretty resigned as far as prescriptivism goes, isn’t it? They don’t bother even weakly urging people to use the words with their original meanings — all they’re asking for is that we remain aware of what those original meanings were.

  4. In English, “If you please” can be said in a tone that makes it anything but a humble request, but I don’t think that it has that effect without the tone. It’s one of those expressions of rather elevated language that are either highly polite or sarcastic, using an expression more elevated than the occasion calls for being an important way of conveying sarcasm. Gefälligst seems to have gone all the way to lexicalizing that, probably because the “straight” meaning came to seem impossibly old-fashioned.

  5. using an expression more elevated than the occasion calls for being an important way of conveying sarcasm

    That would sufficiently account for the different perlocutionary effects of gefälligst. But what about obyazatel’no ?

  6. Stu, I was going to accuse you of making the word “perlocutionary” up, or calqueing it from the German in your Grumbly way, but I’ll be damned if it’s not in the dictionary.

  7. Indeed. The “perlocutionary force” of a verbal utterance is the psychological consequences to the listener of saying it. Thus “Why don’t you just get out of here?” is not really a question about someone’s motives: it is a threat (which is called its “illocutionary force”), and its perlocutionary force is to inspire fear (or at least caution or compliance) in the listener.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    Me, I’ll never get used to schoolboy errors like “obnoxious” used as if it meant “nasty”, or “ingenuity” when people mean ingeniousness. I don’t know what the 世間 is coming to.

  9. Estimable or not, Bathrobe forgot the cardinal rule of translation: Set it aside for a while before you send it out.

    While I translated the word 世間 seken as ‘society, the world’ I was using the antiquated language of the dictionary. In ordinary English it is probably closer in meaning to ‘people’, as in ‘What will people think?’. From what I understand, it was one of the words used by translators in the 19th century as an equivalent to the English word ‘society’, before 社会 shakai became the standard term. I don’t think 世間ずれ seken-zure is a totally favourable term since it implies that a person doesn’t follow ordinary social norms or mores — they are a little bit different from everyone else. They may lack what the Japanese call ‘common sense’ (常識 jōshiki), although this also has nuances different from English since it tends to be socially determined.

    To the Japanese, who seem particularly susceptible to social pressure, 世間 can be almost a tyrannical figure. It is a place where harsh judgements and exacting demands are made. Indeed, it can sometimes be seen personified as 世間様 seken-sama, something like ‘Mr and Mrs other people’. For some reason I imagine it as being spoken by a matronly figure in a kimono discussing how to deal with some (often minor) family scandal.

  10. “What will Mrs. Grundy say?”

  11. Curiously, Mrs Grundy on Wikipedia has sister articles only in Hungarian and Tagalog.

    Japanese Wikipedia has an article on 世間 that has some interesting information:

    * 世間 was originally a translation of the Buddhist term loka meaning ‘world’. The opposing sense (or one of them) was that of leaving ‘this world’, i.e., entering the Way of the Buddha.

    * In Japanese 世間 became a generally used term for この世 kono yo ‘this world’, 世の中 yo no naka ‘the world, society’, 社会 shakai ‘society’.

    * The Japanese historian Abe Kin’ya (阿部謹也) developed what he called 世間論 seken-ron ‘theory of seken‘ based a comparative study of the Western concept of 社会 shakai ‘society’ and the Japanese concept of 世間 seken.

  12. At this point it would be good if Matt turned up since he is much better versed in things like this than I am.

  13. It’s amazing the things you learn when you start pulling on one little thread at the edge of the vast carpet of human knowledge!

  14. I have lit the Matt-Signal.

  15. Hey, I’m right there at the top of the thread, between the German and the Russian!

    Appropriately Classical modesty aside, Bathrobe has covered most of the bases here, I think. The spelling 世間 turns up a lot in the MYS, always pronounced “yo no naka” (and conversely, 世間 is the overwhelmingly preferred way to write “yo no naka” in kanji), but it’s still mostly used in the Buddhist sense of “the world” rather than the more specific sense of “society”, which I think is more of a Heian innovation. (Followed by the further innovation of using it to mean “relationships between men and women” specifically.) In the MYS it tends to be brought up at the start of the poem, as the topic, and the world is then customarily described as “ushi” (woeful), “munashi” (empty), etc. I wrote about a representative example here.

    “Seken-zure” is actually part of a broader family of “X-zure” words. As far as I can tell from perusing the 日本国語大辞典, these evolved like this:

    1) From at least the Muromachi period we have the word “sureru” describing the situation when two physical objects rub together and are physically the worse for it (not polished, but cracked/scratched/etc.)
    2) In the Edo period (earliest written citation 1686), this is metaphorically applied to people. The part broken/scratched is their innocence.
    3) Starting in the 18th century the form “X ni sureru” (VP) starts appearing as “X-zure” (NP).
    4) In the first half of the 20th century, this patterm becomes more productive and words like “inaka-zure”, “Tokyo-zure”, etc. start appearing in print to describe people who have been unpleasantly hardened by various things and places (inaka = countryside). This is the stage where we find the first cite for “seken-zure” by the way.

    So to be honest, rather than yoof-ful ignorance of the grand classical tradition etc., this looks more like the last gasp of a piece of a relatively recent generationolect, made more interesting by the fact that it happens to have a fairly plausible re-analysis in the _current_ generationolect.

  16. hm, that’s interesting. The adverb obyazatelno has lost its old meaning. But the adjective obyazatelny is still listed in Abramov’s dictionary as synonymous to vezhlivy (courteous) here. Obyazatelny chelovek to a Russian speaker today would most likely mean a man true to his word or a man who delivers on time and in full, according to his obyazatelstva – his duties.

  17. Can’t help sharing a giggle. Yabusaka to a Russian ear sounds incredibly funny because it combines two vulgar words, yabu, a variant of to fuck (first person singular) and saka a variant for either male or female genitalia, the organ with which one pees. Either willingly or reluctantly.

  18. Either willingly or reluctantly.

    You forgot willingly but unsuccessfully.

  19. It’s a function of your seken-zure.

  20. – I translated the word 世間 seken as ‘society, the world’ I was using the antiquated language of the dictionary. In ordinary English it is probably closer in meaning to ‘people’, as in ‘What will people think?’.

    French has exactly same phase – le monde which means both the world and the people.

    And Russian also has this curious word “mir” which manages to have three completely different meanings – peace, world and the people (or rural commune),

    It is often claimed that Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is mistranslated and that he actually wrote about “War and People”

  21. Tolstoy, or rather Sofia, used both. In the end he settled on Peace.

  22. @Sashura:

    Excellent use of seken-zure there!

  23. It is often claimed that Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is mistranslated and that he actually wrote about “War and People”

    Claimed by people who like to propagate fun myths unsupported by facts.

    Tolstoy, or rather Sofia, used both. In the end he settled on Peace.

    What’s the evidence for this?

  24. I’ve read about discussions he and Sofia had on the subject, can’t find it now.

  25. “mir” which manages to have three completely different meanings – peace, world and the people (or rural commune)

    Setting aside Leo Tolstoy’s intent (and he must have been aware of the dual meaning he was about to launch), the other Russian word for world / society, свет “svet” also has a triple meaning (in addition, “brightness, light”, cognate with English “white”, and, interestingly, idiomatically used with the adjective “white” to mean “the whole world”). The use of “svet” as “society” esp. “high society” (as opposed to “mir”, “a commoners’ society”), must be informed by the French “monde”?

    世間 was originally a translation of the Buddhist term loka meaning ‘world’. The opposing sense (or one of them) was that of leaving ‘this world’, i.e., entering the Way of the Buddha

    “Not of this world” is common religious formula in Russian too, but with the root “svet” it lost the original meaning and несусветный just means “nonsensical, preposterous”. It may parallel the process of repurposing the meaning of formerly religious concepts which we see in the Japanese example,

    Also “батюшки-светы”, an exclamation literally meaning “dear fathers – lights” ~~ OMG, is clearly related to a polite interjection “svet” traditionally used in extended patronymic forms of Russian personal names (either between the first name and the patronymic, or sometimes to substitute for the missing patronymic), but the origin of such usage is murky.

  26. Setting aside Leo Tolstoy’s intent (and he must have been aware of the dual meaning he was about to launch)

    I don’t see why. Война и мир ‘war and peace’ is as canonical an opposition as день и ночь ‘day and night’; you have to be deliberately perverse to read it any other way. Not to mention that there was no ambiguity in his day, since миръ could only mean ‘peace’ (the ‘world’ word was written with dotted i).

  27. you have to be deliberately perverse to read it any other way.

    Adding “deliberately” somehow sanitizes the perversity. It raises it above the level of sexual perversion, which nowadays usually connotes lack of conscious control. Sade apparently wrote for naught.

  28. Freud too.

  29. Both of them were perverse as hell.

  30. Not to mention that there was no ambiguity in his day, since миръ could only mean ‘peace’

    Of course there was no literal ambiguity – what there is is a pun, a double meaning of the spoken rather than written word. The authors care rather deeply about phonetic alliterations of their texts; it’s a mark of high craft to make a written phrase sound a certain way which enriches its literal meaning. And excluding undesired alliterations and phonetic senses is just as important. So I have to assume that Tolstoy either meant the title to sound ambiguously, or at least didn’t mind it – because to hypothesize that he didn’t notice it would be disingenuous?

    Not that it was my point anyway 🙂 I was more interested in svet

  31. Of course there was no literal ambiguity – what there is is a pun, a double meaning of the spoken rather than written word. The authors care rather deeply about phonetic alliterations of their texts; it’s a mark of high craft to make a written phrase sound a certain way which enriches its literal meaning. And excluding undesired alliterations and phonetic senses is just as important.

    But if you want to call a novel “War and Peace” in Russian, that’s the only way to do it. I am willing to accept that the possible associations of the homonym may have occurred to him, but not that they played any role in his choosing the title.

  32. I agree with Dmitry. It’s not about whether it means peace or world, it’s that it means both. Both meanings are in your mind when your read or discuss it.
    Except I’d call it not a pun or an ambiguity but a subtlety.

  33. Let me put it this way: the whole “War and People” idea could only have occurred to people after they had forgotten the pre-reform spelling. When Tolstoy wrote and published the novel, the title was completely unambiguous, and the homonym міръ, if it had any influence, did so only subconsciously or as an interesting sidelight. The whole “here’s the real hidden story of what Tolstoy really meant!” thing is a modern absurdity that gets me very irritated, as you can probably tell.

  34. It’s not about whether it means peace or world, it’s that it means both. Both meanings are in your mind when your read or discuss it.

    Not in the nineteenth century.

  35. Ha! Mystics! I’m listening to a Ukrainian radio station right now, and, believe it or not, they are discussing exactly that – the two meanings intertwined, peace as not-war and peace as building a world, a peaceful one.

  36. Of course, it’s easy to prove me wrong. Simply find a pre-1917 discussion of the alleged ambiguity of the title.

  37. Right, “pun” was sort of wrongly implying light-spiritedness and smiles. Thanks for the correction!

    And LH, you are absolutely correct that the antonym relation of war vs. peace identifies the primary meaning. It doesn’t mean that an author doesn’t need to consider secondary meanings even though the context may be perfectly sufficient to sort out what’s primary and what’s secondary. When the Brezhnev character from the classic joke uttered, haltingly, “интеллигенция идет нога в ногу с пролетариатом”, the primary meaning was 100% obvious but the secondary phonetic meaning pulverized it. Clarity and subtlety are both important for masterly writersmanship, and controlling the 2ndary meaning is an integral part of it.

  38. But I don’t believe there was a secondary meaning. There were two distinct words in Russian, and he used one of them. Would you say in the English title “War and Peace” there is a secondary meaning “piece”?

  39. But I don’t believe there was a secondary meaning. There were two distinct words in Russian, and he used one of them.

    OK, it’s fine. It would be hard to find sources just by Google Books search – the titles used to be inflexed in XIX c. Russian, typically with yat endings, and the OCRs of the old characters is miserable. I quickly found one book where they used dotted i for mir but there it’s most likely a typo. It’s no problem if we remain convinced in the opposite hypotheses. I suspect that the Russians may be naturally more predisposed to see мiръ where the letters spell миръ just because Russian orthography is significantly more phonetic than the English one … but of course it may still be an illusion informed by the later fusion of the spellings.

    Another point to consider is whether the secondary sense is allowed by the contextual bounds. Your peace – piece is a poor example because the purported 2nd meaning doesn’t fit the context in any way. But peace – community does make sense in the context.

  40. but of course it may still be an illusion informed by the later fusion of the spellings.

    Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. My “War and Piece” example is poor, of course, and I’ll try to think of a better one, but at any rate, once a clever idea has been put into one’s head, it’s always hard to resist it… and Russians do love a good piece of подоплека.

  41. Why do I have the feeling we’ve had this same discussion before?

  42. Hmm, I may be thinking of the discussion of растѣкается мыслию here.

  43. Your peace – piece is a poor example because the purported 2nd meaning doesn’t fit the context in any way. But peace – community does make sense in the context.

    Peace and community are not always associated with each other, except in the minds of columbine communitarians. Wars are usually fought to consolidate and extend the community (aka empire). That’s the point of the party slogan “War Is Peace” in 1984.

    As for Tolstoy’s novel: no war, no plot.

  44. Ah! Your mention of the mysl/squirrel debate gave the answer to your challenge to show a pre-1917 discussion of the title. It is Mayakovsky’s poem Война и Мiр (1915/16) with a deliberate i in the title. Does it not show that even though the spelling was different for two different meanings in the minds of speakers they still overlapped, admittedly as a counterpoint?
    The squirrel enters in this passage:
    Белкой скружишься у смеха в колесе,
    когда узнает твой прах о том:
    сегодня
    мир
    весь – Колизей…
    [Squirrel-like will you go round and round from laughter,
    when your ashes learn that
    today
    all the world (мiр)
    is Colosseum.]

  45. Does it not show that even though the spelling was different for two different meanings in the minds of speakers they still overlapped, admittedly as a counterpoint?

    No, it shows Mayakovsky knew how to make a good pun. I could write a poem called “War and Pieces” or “The Grated Gatsby”; that wouldn’t mean that those meanings overlapped in the minds of speakers as a counterpoint.

  46. I really want to read The Grated Gatsby, which I assume would be about American success repesented by a wheel of parmesan (rather than fortune), with a side reference to “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    The use of “svet” as “society” esp. “high society” … , must be informed by the French “monde”?

    I can’t comment on the Russian word, but the French le monde meaning ‘high society’ seems to me rather archaic. Of course if you read Balzac you will find the word used plentifully, but not so much nowadays (at least that’s what it seems to me). My grandmothers would have used le beau monde with this meaning, probably rather ironically since they were socially quite far from it. The English (!) word débutante (not used with this meaning in French) would be explained as une jeune fille de bonne famille qui fait son entrée dans le monde ‘a girl of good family making her entry into society’, usually through a ball or other very fancy and formal occasion where she would be presented to her family’s peer group, including potential marriage partners of suitable status. (I am told that a watered down version of this custom has arisen among highly placed French families, who organize “rallyes”, informal social occasions when a number of families with teenagers and young adults get together so that the young people can start meeting each other long before they are ready to get married).

  48. I can’t comment on the Russian word, but the French le monde meaning ‘high society’ seems to me rather archaic.

    That meaning is archaic in Russian as well; it is clearly derived from French, like much of the vocabulary of early-19th-century high-society life in Russia.

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