Japanese loanword spotlight: 「ナーバス」(naabasu) [It doesn’t always mean “nervous”]

By | September 4, 2018

Loanwords from other countries, called gairaigo (外来語), make up a significant part of the Japanese language, and learning their nuances is a key part of being truly fluent in Japanese.

Many of these words, for example seetaa(セーター, meaning “sweater”), are used in a way that is very similar to their original language. However, some loan words have a significantly different nuance, and a common example of this is the word manshon(マンション), which in Japanese refers more to an apartment than an exorbitant place only the rich can live in.

Recently, I came across a word that came from English but is used in a subtly different way. I’ve even seen a mistranslation of this in an anime film, so I think I’, not the only one who has trouble understanding it.

The word is ナーバス (naabasu), which clearly has some connection to the English word “nervous”. In context, it is easy to think this simply means “nervous”, but there is a difference that I’ll try to explain here.

I’ll use an example which I pulled from this article, which explains the word ナーバス in Japanese.

  • 彼は意外とナーバスな面がある (kare wa igai to naabasuna men ga aru).

A rough translation of this would look something like:

  • She has a surprisingly nervous aspect to her.

However, in English the term “nervous” is more often to indicate a state of mind in a certain situation, for example when someone is on a date and unsure of how to act. While we could say “Tony was nervous on his first date,” it’s not that common to say “Tony is a nervous guy”. There is the expression “Tony has a nervous temperament”, but I’ve rarely heard that in everyday speech.

Looking at the articleI referred to above, we can see ナーバス is used (for example) when a person is:

  • 興奮しやすい (easily excited)
  • いらいらしやすい (easily annoyed)
  • びくびくしている (afraid, or jumpy)

I don’t think anyone would describe the common usage of the English word “nervous” to mean “easily annoyed”.

When translating, the word ナーバス should be rendered differently depending on the situation, but generally speaking I was told by a native Japanese speaker that “sensitive” is a good way to think of it. The article I referenced uses 繊細 (sensai) which essentially means the same thing.

I recently saw this word used in a situation where an older man was talking about how his mental state had changed over time. Saying “as I got older, I become more nervous” clearly sounds awkward in English. However, rendering this as “as I got older, I become more sensitive” or “as I got older, I become more sentimental” makes much more sense.

Confusingly, looking up the word ナーバス, my dictionary simply says “nervous” and “神経質”, which doesn’t indicate this subtle difference. I think that if you take the meaning of the English word “nervous” in a wide sense it is consistent, but in terms of how “nervous” is typically used it doesn’t quite fit.

This is just one example, but I hope it will inspire you to think of loanwords having meanings that are related, yet not identical to their meaning in the language they came from.

One other loanword that is surprisingly different in Japanese is sumaato(スマート), which actually means “slender”, despite the fact you might think it means “intelligent”. This makes more sense if you remember that the English word “smart” can also mean “stylish” or “fashionable”. Another related word is sutairu(スタイル), which sounds like the English “style” but can also refer to an attractive or slim figure, especially in the expression sutairu ga ii (スタイルがいい).



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2 thoughts on “Japanese loanword spotlight: 「ナーバス」(naabasu) [It doesn’t always mean “nervous”]

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Good point, I had forgotten that term but you are right, it is a perfect fit for this situation.

      I think I like the Japanese term for this better though: 空似言葉 (sorani kotoba)


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