Interesting Japanese expression: 噛み砕く (kamikudaku)

By | January 3, 2020

In all the languages I have studied, it’s fairly common for certain expressions to have special meanings that extend beyond the literal meaning, and Japanese is no exception. In this post I would like to go over a particular word with an extended meaning that I thought was especially interesting: 噛み砕く (kamikudaku).

噛み砕く is a compound verb made up of two verbs with the following meanings:

  • 噛む (kamu): “to bite”
  • 砕く (kudaku): “to break”, “to crush”, “to smash”

The literal meaning of “kamikudaku” is pretty straightforward, as it takes the meanings of the two verbs and puts them together––basically to bite and crush something.

But the extended meaning of this verb is somewhat interesting. Let’s take a look at an example sentence first:

  • 小さい子供だから噛み砕いて説明してください。 (chiisai kodomo dakara kamikudaite setsumei shite kudasai)
  • (You are speaking to) a small child, so please explain things simply.

Here we can see that the te-form of the word (kamikudaite) is used adverbially to describe doing something “easily” or “simply”. However, as the only times I have heard this expression metaphorically used involve explaining things, I would caution about using this in any other context.

I’m not sure where the origin of this phrase came from, but when I think of how some animals will pre-chew food for their children, it makes sense. You can also think of it in terms of “digesting” something and putting it into simpler terms.

However, my dictionary says that even 砕く(kudaku) can be used by itself for a similar meaning––although I have never heard this usage in practice––so the 噛む (kamu) may not have that much significance after all.

Finally, I wanted to mention another useful secondary meaning of the verb 砕ける (kudakeru), whose core meaning is similar to 砕く. When used in the past tense, it can be used to describe something being “informal”, for example:

  • 砕けた言い方ですよ (kudaketa iikata desu yo)
  • It’s an informal expression.

This contrasts with the word “broken” in English, which has a secondary meaning that means “incomplete” (ex: “He speaks broken English”). By the way, Japanese can express this idea with the word かたこと.

But the meaning of “broken” meaning “informal” in Japanese sort of makes sense when you consider that the word かたい (katai) means “hard”, but can also mean “formal”. This aligns with the English word “stiff”, which can also mean “formal”.

(Note: featured images of a puppy taken from Pexels.com)

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