Curse words can be funny; we try to make sure our children don’t use them and stay away from using them ourselves in inappropriate situations, but at the same time they can among the first words we learn in a foreign language. I’ve met several people who say, “All I know in so-and-so language is a few curse words.”
So I think it’s time for a post about one of the most common curse words in Japanese: “baka”. This is most often written in hiragana as ばか and sometimes in katakana as バカ. Also, it is sometimes written in kanji as 馬鹿. You might recognize that the latter word is made up of the characters for “horse” and “deer”, but in fact this is an ateji which means the kanji are just phonetic equivalents. It appears that the origin of “baka” is the Sanskrit word “moha”, which is a Buddhist concept sometimes translated as “ignorance” or “delusion”. (“Baka” can also be written as “莫迦”, but I’ve rarely seen this in the real world.)
I’m guessing most readers already know the basic meaning of this word, which is “stupid”––essentially something or someone that doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t think clearly. As you can guess, it is often used to insult people, for example in this common expression:
- ばかやろう！ (baka yarou)
- (You) idiot!
Here, “yarou” (sometimes written as 野郎) is a word that means “man” with a negative connotation. If you were translating the above, you could end up with all sorts of phrases like, “Asshole!” or “Jerk!”.
“Baka” can be grammatically used as a na-adjective, for example:
- 馬鹿な先生がいるんだね。。。 (baka na sensei ga iru n da ne)
- There really are stupid teachers (in the world)…
“Baka” can also be used in the “ni suru” form (or some form of that) where it means “to make fun of”:
- 俺のこと、馬鹿にするな！ (ore no koto, baka ni suru na)
- Don’t make fun of me!
Here is the same expression, but in the passive form:
- 馬鹿にされるのは嫌です。 (baka ni sareru no iya desu)
- I dislike being made fun of.
Another form of this is “baka ni dekinai”, which literally means “cannot make fun of” and is used to compliment someone (or a class of people)
- 小説家ってバカにできないね (shousetsuka tte baka ni dekinai ne)
- You gotta respect novelists.
Similar to words like “chou” and “sugoi”/”sugoku”, “baka” can be used casually as a prefix to mean “to a large extent” or “very”:
- 馬鹿正直 (baka shoujiki): extremely honest (“stupidly honest”)
- ばかでかい (baka dekai): extremely large (“stupidly large”)
However, this expression seems to be mostly used with a few set phrases, so I would avoid using it too freely. There is also the expression “馬鹿に” (baka ni) that means the same thing, but I have seen that used mostly in literature.
The word “baka” can also be used as a suffix after certain nouns, whereby it expresses that someone is over-specialized in one area to the detriment of others:
- 専門ばか (senmon baka): an expert in some (often academic) field, but weak in other areas (lacks common knowledge, etc.)
- 親ばか (oya baka): a parent who is very affectionate about their child/children, often to an extreme degree
There also exists an i-adjective form of “baka”: 馬鹿馬鹿しい (bakabakashii). I use this one pretty often myself in daily life. Two other variations that mean basically the same thing are:
- 馬鹿っぽい (bakappoi)
- 馬鹿らしい (bakarashii)
What about a verb form? Yep, there’s one of those too. It’s 馬鹿げる (bakageru). It’s typically used in the past tense as an adjective (see this page for details about that):
- 馬鹿げた映画だな (bakageta eiga da na)
- What a stupid movie.
This word also sounds a little literary, or at least “dated” to me.
I’ve heard that Japanese doesn’t have as many curse words compared to English, and I think there is a grain of truth in that. But, in order to compensate for this, words like “baka” can take on a variety of nuances depending the situation and tone of voice––anything from “silly” to “total moron”. So when you hear this word (especially when it is said to you), listen more to the tone than to the word itself.
Besides changes in tone, the pronunciation of “baka” can even change slightly:
- ばっかじゃない！ (bakka ja nai)
- What an idiot!
Depending on the context, the above sentence could actually mean “Aren’t you an idiot!” instead of a third person.
Even though “baka” can have a mild (almost friendly) nuance, I would be careful when using it in the context of people you are not close friends with (basically people you use the desu/masu form with when speaking).
While “baka” can be applied to a variety of “stupid” situations, people, and things, it doesn’t have as wide applicability as, say, the F-bomb in English. In Japanese there are other words that more general expressions for when something bad happens (ex: “shimatta”, or “yabai”).
“Baka” is also a slang term used to refer to plants that have prickly seeds that stick to your clothes and can be painful. In English, I’d call those “stickers”.
Another word that means “idiot” and can used in some of the same forms (including the na adjective form, -ppoi form, and -rashii form) is “ahou” (あほう), which usually sounds like “aho” to me.
“Kuru kuru paa” is another related expression that means “idiot”, see details here.
(Note: featured image of “1+1 = 3” is from Pexels.com)