Japanese slang word: yabai (やばい)- when things get dangerous

By | January 19, 2015

In a previous post, I’ve discussed how Japanese has less curse words than languages like English. There are a few, however, which can pack quite a strong meaning, and in this post I’ll be talking about one such word – “yabai”.

“yabai” originally means “dangerous” (equivalent to Japanese “abunai”) or a bad situation.

  • 警察はやばい仕事です。
  • Police officer is a dangerous job.

This phrase can be also used as a expletive in a way similar to the English “shit” or “damn”.

  • やばい!課題を提出し忘れた!
  • Shoot! I forgot to turn in my homework!

There are several different variations in it’s pronunciation (when used in casual conversation), for example:

  • やばっ! (yaba!)
  • やべー! (yabee!)
  • やべっ!   (yabe!)

The small tsu (っ) that is in the first and third hiragana words above means to end the last sound quickly. This is difficult to convey in romaji so I’ve just left that part out.

Young people have taken this phrase and expanded it’s meaning to mean something extreme, similar to “very”.

  • 一個千円のクッキーなんてやばい高いよね?
  • A 1000-yen cookie is super expensive, don’t you think?     (Currently, 1000 yen is roughly $8.50)

[Note: in the above example “やばい高い” is one adjective followed by another which is technically incorrect grammar, however this is a slang expression and is actually said this way. You can say “やばく高い” which is correct but sounds less natural.]

You could replace “super” with “crazy” in the above phrase’s English translation and you might capture a bit more of the nuance of the word.

Here is another example using やばい as an adjective, this time with a verb:

  • その本、やばい売れてるよ!
  • That book is selling like mad!

In a similar way, you can use “yabai” to mean “amazing”, or “surprising” (similar to “sugoi”). For example, say you just found out that a great book you read is a true story and this surprised you.

  • この本、やばくない?!
  • This book is crazy!  (lit: “Isn’t this book crazy?”)

Since it’s a slang word, I would avoid this word unless you are with close friends to be safe.

One related word is “mazui” which literally means “unsavory” or “not tasty” (like food), but can also be used to describe a bad situation. However I’ve seen this phrase used mostly by adults/older people.

If you enjoyed the article, please check out my new book on Japanese particles: Yabai Quizzes for Japanese Learners.



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