Horse, Deer, Baka.

One of the words that’s most firmly ensconced in my memory from my years in Japan is baka ‘idiot, fool’ — people yell it at each other all the time, and you hear it in Japanese movies as well. Leanne Ogasawara, at her Substack blog Dreaming in Japanese, posts about it in the context of a drama about Murasaki Shikibu:

Something that really caught my attention in the show was the origins of the surpring kanji used to write the Japanese word for “fool,” or “baka.” Written as horse deer, 馬鹿 baka, is one of the most famous Japanese words that even people with only a passing understanding of Japanese have probably heard. Since Japan does not have a lot of “bad words” baka is used a lot in Japan!

But why is fool written as horse deer???

After Murasaki’s father remarks that it’s too bad she wasn’t born a boy, he reads her a passage from the Chinese Records of the Grand Historian 史記 about the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang and infamous traitor, the Minister Zhao Gao (died 207 BCE). Wanting to wrest control of power and the mandate to rule, Zhao brings a deer to court and pointing to it, calls it a horse. The second emperor laughs and says, “Aren’t you mistaken? That looks like a horse to me,” to which Zhao asks everyone in the room: “is this a deer or is it a horse?”—Most present, however, wanting to ingratiate themselves with the minister, called the deer a horse. But […] those who remained silent, he later had killed.

This is where the Chinese idiom “point at a deer and say horse” 指鹿為馬 comes from and the Japanese 鹿を指して馬となす Shika o Sashite Uma to Nasu) meaning “deliberate misrepresentation for ulterior purposes.”

This is the first I’ve heard about the horse/deer origin story, which I presume is your basic just-so folk etymology; the Wiktionary entry I linked at the start of the post says:

Probably originally a transcription of Sanskrit मोह (moha, “folly”), used as a slang term among monks.

Alternatively, may have arisen from the same root as Old Japanese 痴 (woko, modern oko, “stupidity, ridiculousness”). However, this theory is problematic phonologically, as the /b/ ↔ /w/ shift is difficult to explain.

I’ll be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about all this. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    This suggests (as I think you suspected) that the allusion to the learned Classical Chinese idiom is one of a number of competing etymological just-so stories, none of which is necessarily definitive. I remember the “baka-yaro” compound as sort of the default standard form, at least among gaijin third-graders in 1973.

  2. And of course, as everyone knows, a hippophagous Chinese emperor coined the term “Umami” after downing a particularly toothsome hoof.

  3. I remember the “baka-yaro” compound as sort of the default standard form, at least among gaijin third-graders in 1973.

    Yes, that’s very familiar to me from a decade earlier.

  4. As a cogent example of a word that has followed the path of monkish slang from a Sanskrit abstract noun to a modern colloquial Japanese word for a person, there is 旦那 danna. The semantic development from Sanskrit dānam ‘gift; giving; the virtue of generosity’ to modern Japanese 旦那 danna ‘husband’ is outlined adequately in the Wiktionary entry here.

  5. Very cool!

  6. Carr’s article, Baka and Fool, is very worthwhile. It’s a rare example of semantic mapping of insult terms, which is very challenging, and which dictionaries avoid.

  7. Thanks. Here’s an archived version of the article.

  8. It begins:

    This is a study in the comparative semantics of the Japanese baka and the English fool. The primary meanings of baka and fool are similar, but there are lexical differences between them. In general, there are more diverse ways of calling someone a fool in English than there are in Japanese.

    1. The Word Baka

    1.1. The Origins of Baka. The Japanese word baka comes from an unusual source: a Sanskrit word for ‘fool’ that was once used in the argot of Japanese Buddhist priests. Although it is widely agreed that baka came from Sanskrit, no one is certain from which particular Sanskrit word.

  9. There’s a nice bit at the bottom of p. 14 that includes this:

    There are decided pragmatic and communicative advantages to such lexical vagueness. If you call me a stupid son of a bitch, I know exactly what you mean. But if you call me a baka-yarō, I cannot be so sure of what you mean.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I clearly failed to pick up the macron-lengthened final vowel in “baka-yarō” on the ASIJ playground …

  11. Scopulus says

    FWIW, Mami Suzuki posted a little article on “baka” etymology for Tofugu back in May 2015 in which she briefly reviewed five different theories.

  12. Interesting stuff, thanks! It’s got not just etymologies but usage, e.g.:

    Be aware though that its usage is quite different regionally. For example, in Kanto (Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Kanagawa), baka is generally used for mild ridicule, whereas it’s the go-to word when you really want to curse someone out in the Kansai region (Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, and Shiga). Thus, it’s important to note that people take this word very differently depending on where they’re from.

  13. For the curious, here is the poem 傷宅 Shāng zhái of Bai Juyi (in Japanese, usually known with his courtesy name as 白楽天 Haku Rakuten) that was referenced in the article (boldface added):


    Translation by Xiaoshan Yang in ‘Having It Both Ways: Manors and Manners in Bai Juyi’s Poetry’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 56 (1996):

    Whose family has erected this grand mansion,
    With its vermilion gate on the wide avenue?
    Inside, luxurious rooms lie side by side;
    Outside, towering walls wind round and round.
    One after another are its six or seven halls;
    Their eaves and beams are all connected.
    One hall costs a million,
    From which splendid blue mist rises.
    The chambers are warm and cool;
    Cold and heat cannot penetrate.
    The main hall is spacious and winding,
    Sitting up or lying down, one can view Southern Mountain.
    Surrounding the corridor are scaffolds with purple vines,
    Flanking the steps are balustrades with red peony.
    Cherries can be picked by bending the twigs;
    Peonies are transplanted while blossoming.
    The owner has stayed here
    For ten years as a big official.
    In his kitchen there is rancid meat;
    In his storehouse there is money strung with rotten cords.
    Who can send my message,
    Right to his deepest heart?
    Aren’t there the poor and lowly?
    Can you bear not saving them from hunger and cold?
    How could you only worship your own self,
    And try to keep this for a thousand years?
    Don’t you see the house of the Ma family
    —It has now turned into Fengcheng Garden.

    Some of Xiaoshan Yang’s interesting discussion of this poem from his article:

    Thus, by the mid-Tang period, descriptions of the Tang estate had been firmly rooted in certain poetic conventions. Against the panegyrical mode of early Tang and the reflective mode of high Tang, Bai Juyi’s poetry of social criticism adopts a satirical mode. In contrast to poems on rural villas, which purported to reflect the virtues or the noble states of mind of their dwellers, poems describing luxurious urban mansions, especially those in the capital city of Chang’an, had long expressed a general disapproval of excess…

    The contrast between the rich and the poor is a rewriting of Du Fu’s well known couplet, which Bai Juyi quotes in one of his most famous letters to Yuan Zhen 元稹 (779–831) as the epitome of social relevance of poetry (BJYJ, p. 961):


    Inside the vermilion gate wine and meat turn rancid; On the street there are the bones of those who have frozen to death.

    The dominant tone of Bai Juyi’s poem is satirical, but the last two lines contain an elegiac element in referring to the wealthy mansion of Ma Sui 馬燧, a general who distinguished himself in suppressing the revolts of 781–785. When Ma Sui died in 797, the eunuchs cajoled his son Ma Chang 馬暢 into handing over the family house and grounds to the Emperor. The property eventually became the Fengcheng Garden, which, as Arthur Waley points out, ninth-century poets often used as “a symbol of the transitoriness of worldly possessions and glory.”

  14. Steve Plant says

    re “point at a deer and say horse”ère_David%27s_deer

  15. My wife, who is as Edo as they come, explained “baka” simply as “It is absurd. It can’t exist. So it is stupid.”

  16. David Marjanović says

    Père David’s deer “is sometimes known by its informal name sibuxiang (Chinese: 四不像; pinyin: sì bú xiàng; Japanese: shifuzō), literally meaning “four not alike”, which could mean “the four unlikes” or “like none of the four”; it is variously said that the four are cow, deer, donkey, horse (or) camel, and that the expression means in detail:

    “the hooves of a cow but not a cow, the neck of a camel but not a camel, antlers of a deer but not a deer, the tail of a donkey but not a donkey.”
    “the nose of a cow but not a cow, the antlers of a deer but not a deer, the body of a donkey but not a donkey, tail of a horse but not a horse”
    “the tail of a donkey, the head of a horse, the hoofs of a cow, the antlers of a deer”
    “the neck of a camel, the hoofs of a cow, the tail of a donkey, the antlers of a deer”
    “the antlers of a deer, the head of a horse and the body of a cow”[10]”

    Shades of the nilgai, Boselaphus tragocamelus

  17. I first learned the word baka from John Hersey’s Hiroshima, where a priest is trying to comfort orphaned children in the days after the bomb, telling them riddles: “What is the cleverest animal in the world?” The answer is the hippopotamus, kaba カバ (河馬, ‘river horse’), the reverse of baka.

  18. I prefer 阿呆 aho myself.

  19. To amplify the preceding comment, aho (including do-aho “complete idiot”) is the preferred word in the Kansai region and is thus relatively mild due to its widespread and common use. Baka is only trotted out when you want to deliver a serious imprecation.

    See Hat’s quote above: baka is “the go-to word when you really want to curse someone out in the Kansai region (Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, and Shiga)”.

  20. Michael Carr’s article, which Hat refers to above, states that baka ni suru/sareru (馬鹿にする/される) means “make a fool of (someone)”. This is completely wrong. The meaning is not “make a fool of (someone) / be made a fool of” but “mock, ridicule (someone)” / “be mocked or ridiculed”.

    If Carr gets this one so wrong in an article that is supposedly on “comparative semantics”, I’m wondering whether anything else the article says can be trusted.

    The Mami Suzuki article, on the other hand, is full of good information, including the information on aho I mentioned above.

  21. What is the difference between “make a fool of” and “mock, ridicule”?

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    I suppose you can make a fool out of someone by swindling them or telling them everyone will show up to the party undressed when this is not the plan. Mocking or ridiculing does not involve the target believing the mocking or ridiculing statements.

  23. Thanks, Plastic Paddy, that is exactly the difference.

    “Making a fool of someone” involves putting them in a situation where they look like a fool.
    Cambridge Dictionary: “to trick someone or make someone appear stupid in some way”.

    “Mocking or ridiculing someone” just means telling them they are stupid, etc.
    Cambridge Dictionary: “mock someone” = “to laugh at someone, often by copying them in a funny but unkind way: They were mocking him because he kept falling off his bike. She made fun of him by mocking ”
    Cambridge Dictionary: “ridicule someone” = “to laugh at someone in an unkind way : She rarely spoke her mind out of fear of being ridiculed.”
    Cambridge Dictionary: “make fun of someone” = “to make a joke about someone or something in a way that is not kind”

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