Why is grass (草) used in Japanese to mean something is funny?

By | January 8, 2020

The interaction between languages over time can be interesting to follow. Words get imported from one language into another, and meaning often changes, from subtle to drastic ways. New words can even be formed using a composite of words from two languages.

For various historical reasons, in the last few decades the Japanese language has been influenced significantly by English, and (to a smaller extent) other languages. In particular Japanese has a huge number of loan words from English.

But in this post I want to describe a somewhat rare phenomenon, where understanding the history of an expression (or a character, in this case) requires jumping to a foreign language (English) and then back to Japanese. It’s the kanji character for grass: 草 (kusa), which has a special meaning when used on the Internet, like for example Twitter. For example:

  • 彼、また負けるね(kare, mata makeru ne kusa)
  • He’s going to loose again (???)

So what exactly does this 草 mean? As I hinted at above, understanding this will require jumping between Japanese to English and back.

First, let’s review the most common verb for “to laugh”, 笑う (warau). The character 笑 can also be used at the end of a sentence to represent a smiley face, or to indicate something is funny.

  • 君らしいね () (kimi rashii ne (warai))
  • That’s so like you. (:

At some point, the first letter of 笑う in romaji, which is “w”, started being used on the internet for the same meaning as 笑う. It can be used as a single character (“w”) or with a few of the same characters repeated (“wwwwww”), the latter having a stronger emphasis.

  • 君らしいね wwwww
  • That’s so like you. (lol)

So what does this have to do with 草, a character that means “grass”? Well, if you look at “wwwww” closely you might realize it looks the side view of grass growing (though it may take some imagination…) So it turns out that 草 is also used when something is supposed to be funny:

  • 彼、また負けるね(kare, mata makeru ne kusa)
  • He’s going to loose again (ROFL)

Keep in mind all of the above translations in English are somewhat arbitrary, you can render the concept of being “funny” various other ways. By the way, in Japanese there are a few ways to say “funny”, including 笑える (waraeru), うける (ukeru), and 面白い (omoshiroi), although the last of these can also mean “interesting” depending on the context. (興味深い [kyoumibukai] is another word for “interesting” that is less ambiguous.)

If you want to read more details about 草’s history in Japanese you can see this page.

(Note: picture of grass used for the featured image taken from Pexels.com)

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