Cats everywhere – Japanese phrases, part five

by Stratton Craig

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Part two of our series on Japanese phrases and their literal meanings has already covered the ‘animal’ theme, but we’re coming back to it to complete the series. As it turns out, there are a lot of things you can say about cats. The Japanese word for cat is ‘neko’ (猫).

Cats pop up everywhere. Did you know, for example, that ‘neko ga kao wo arau to ame ga furu’? (猫が買うを洗うと雨が降る) If a cat washes its face, rain is coming. Funnily enough, there’s no good Japanese equivalent when it’s raining cats and dogs.

The use of cats in many popular idioms is reflected in its appearance in the Japanese equivalent of anybody and everybody – or every Tom, Dick and Harry. ‘Neko mo shakushi mo’ (猫も杓子も) literally means ‘even a cat or a ladle’.

Everyone has their own way of speaking, of course. We think ‘neko no hitai no you na’ (猫の額のような) would fit in well with the language of estate agents. It’s used to mean ‘small’, and literally means ‘like a cat’s forehead’. Because those are pretty small. The phrase ‘not big enough to swing a cat in’ comes to mind…

On the other hand, if you want to say that somewhere’s completely deserted you’d use ‘neko to ippiki inai’ (猫と一匹居ない) – not even one cat is here.

When you’re packed to the rafters, you might be so busy that even a cat’s help is appreciated: ‘neko no te mo karitai’ (猫の手も借りたい). Conversely, ‘neko irazu’ (猫要らす) is the common name for rat poison, with the meaning of ‘no cats needed’.

People who dislike very hot food and drink are said to have a cat’s tongue, ‘nekojita’ (猫舌).  A ‘nekoguruma’  (猫車) isn’t a cat car as the name suggests, but a wheelbarrow. Something fickle or changeable is a cat’s eye, ‘neko no me’  (猫の目).

And that’s far from all. When Japanese people say that curiosity killed the cat, they mean it – ‘koukishin neko wo korosu’ (好奇心猫を殺す) is one of the rare direct translations.

That’s all from me – but we’ll have another blog series coming soon from one of our other fabulously wordy copywriters. Stay tuned!

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