Japanese literary phrase: さも (samo)

By | November 23, 2020

In this post I’d like to go over the phrase さも (“samo”), which you are likely to come across if you read enough Japanese literature, along with a few examples and explanation of its origin. さも is usually written in hiragana, but it can technically also be written with partial kanji as 然も.

さも is often used to express that something is very similar to, or exactly like something else. Let’s look at a simple example sentence:

  • 彼はさも侍のようでした。 (kare wa sa mo samurai no you deshita)
  • He was just like a samurai.

Here the phrase “さも” adds emphasis to “よう”, where the latter means “like” or “as if”. You can follow よう with に for an adverbial usage:

  • さも狂人のように叫びました (sa mo kyoujin no you ni sakebimashita)
  • He/she screamed like a crazy person.

Another very common pattern is to use さも with そう, a word that can be used similarly to よう to mean “like” or “as if”. (See more information on this usage here.)

  • 鳥はさも嬉しそうに鳴いた (tori wa sa mo ureshi sou ni naita)
  • The bird chirped just as if it was happy. (Or more naturally, “The bird chirped happily”)

Another word that can be used for the same meaning as さも is 如何にも (“ika ni mo”), although the latter can also mean “to a large extent”. まるで (maru de) is yet another word that can be used to mean “just like”, and sounds a little less literary to my ears.

One way I look at these words is that they give the listener/reader important contextual information earlier in the sentence so that things can be understood better before reaching the そう or よう that is later in the sentence. But while words like さも, いかにも and まるで can sometimes be omitted, usually the corresponding “like” word later in the sentence (そう or よう) is not omitted.

As for the origin of さも, it turns out to be the combination of the word さ (然, “sa”) and the particle も. The “sa” I am talking about here is different than the commonly used “sa” particle (which I described in detail here) but is functionality equivalent to そう (“that”, “it”, “so”) or そのように (“like that”). As for the particle “mo”, while this is the familiar particle that often means “also” (described in detail here), in this case it serves simply to add emphasis. While there is no exact English equivalent to さも, if we consider the above we end up with something along the lines of “really that”.

Now that we see the origin of さも, it will be fairly easy to understand another common phrase that uses this word, さもないと. Let’s look at an example:

  • さもないと、痛い目にあうぞ (sa mo nai to, itai me ni au zo)

Since さ essentially means そう, we can see that さもないと means そうではない (or そうでもない). If we add the conditional “と” (discussed in more detail here), this literally means “If it is not so”, but usually there is a more natural way to translate it. For example, we can translate the above sentence as follows:

  • Otherwise you’ll suffer!

Generally this sort of sentence would follow a request or demand to do something. By the way, the phrase “痛い目” literally means “painful eye”, but in this context is used to describe a bad experience.

In closing, I wanted to emphasize that using さも often has a literary feel, and I don’t think the average person would use it in casual conversation (unless they were trying to sound intelligent or literary). Similarly, I don’t think most children would use さも. But this doesn’t mean you can’t find places to use it, and it’s always good just to understand the nuance of words like this to increase your listening and reading comprehension.

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