The Japanese term “調子” is quite a multifaceted word with seven definitions in the dictionary, as well as a handful of expressions and compound words that use it. In this post I’ll talk about the usages of it that I have heard most, and I feel are most likely to be useful.
The primary definitions for this word are “pitch, tone, rhythm, manner, or condition” and though some of them seem to be completely unrelated things (“rhythm” and “tone”, for example), I feel the definitions somehow connect with one another.
The last of these, “condition”, is one of the more common usages, however when translating to English often different words are used to express the meaning. Let’s start with a simple example to see what I mean.
- My computer has been acting up lately. (lit: “The condition of my computer is bad”)
You can use the pattern “noun + の + 調子” to describe the “condition” of anything that has the potential to be working badly or working smoothly. This isn’t only for machines, but can be applied to living things, for example:
- I’m feeling pretty good. (lit: “The condition of (my) body is good”)
While the above Japanese is natural, there is another word “体調” which can be used in place of “体の調子”, and as you can see it uses most of the same Kanji characters. So if you said “体調が悪い” it would mean you are feeling sick, or unwell.
One notable way to use 調子 is to express a common English greeting:
- What’s up?
Keep in mind this isn’t exactly a 1-to-1 translation. For example if you heard someone was sick yesterday, and when you met them today you asked “調子はどう？” I think “How are you feeling?” would be a better translation. Another way to say that would be “具合はどう?”, where ”具合” (guai) has a very similar meaning to “調子”.
You can use the verb “出る” (go out, appear, etc.) in conjunction with 調子 to mean the condition of something is not able to rise above a certain point. This is often used to describe performance in sports.
- If I don’t jog at night I can’t get in the groove.
Another way to use 調子 is in the phrase “調子に乗る”, which amounts to getting excited and saying or doing careless things.
- Don’t get carried away!
It can also be used to mean that things are going smoothly, though I haven’t actually heard that meaning used in real life.
As I mentioned in the start of this post, this word can also be used to mean “tone”, and that includes “tone of voice”. However the word 口調 (kuchou) is a more common way to say “tone of voice”
- Whats with that tone of yours?
Finally, the phrase “その調子” can be used when complimenting someone that is doing a great job at something.
- Yeah, thats the way to do it!
And if you find yourself often 調子に乗っている, you might be an お調子者!
Good point! Actually I considered adding お調子者 but doubted it was a common phrase so I ended up leaving it out. But after I wrote this post I ended up seeing it used in a novel, and your comment gives further proof it’s not that rare of an expression.
Thank you, was really helpful!
Thanks for this post, well explained.