It’s not uncommon for one word in a language to have multiple meanings, but for non-native learners it can be challenge to figure out all the meanings from context. Japanese is no exception, although intonation (depending on region) and kanji selection can help to differentiate meanings in some cases.
In this post I want to talk about various common means of the word “maru”, which can be written with the kanji characters 丸 or 円, or simply in hiragana as まる.
The most basic meaning is simply “circle”, which is to describe a geometrical circle. The related adjective まるい (often written as 丸い) means “round”. By the way, a more formal way to say “circle” is 円形 (enkei).
“Maru” (◯) also has the connotation of being “correct” in Japanese culture, and the corresponding shape for “incorrect” would be an X, called “batsu” (✕). To see this in context, this could be a list of healthy and unhealthy drinks:
- 水 ◯
- ジュース ◯
- コーヒー ✕
- コーラ ✕
Two “maru” characters can also be used to express something that is not known, or to speak in a generic sense. For example, the below sentence describes how to greet a customer who enters a store or somesuch place of business.
- When the customer enters, you should say to them “Welcome, Mr./Mrs. so-and-so”.
You would pronounce 「〇〇」 simply as “maru maru”. Another way to express the same idea is 「何々」 (nani nani).
“Maru” is also used in Japanese to censor words. For a family-safe example I’ll use the word おしり, which means “butt” and isn’t too offensive. This word could be written as:
I’ve seen such censoring used for words related other body parts and words considered dirty. Actually, just the other day I was surprised to find the title of a work published in a popular literary magazine was formed from two words, each of which was censored with a single “maru”.
“Maru” is also used traditionally as a suffix for Japanese boat names. Here is one example of a historically relevant boat from the Edo era:
I’ve read that the first boat known to use this practice was the 日本丸 (nipponmaru), another famous boat.
Finally, the common phrase “marude” (most often written in hiragana as まるで, or sometimes as 丸で) is used to compare something to be “just like” something else (a simile), but can also mean simply “not at all”.
- 今日はまるで冬のようだ (kyou wa maru de fuyu no you da)
- Today is just like winter.
By the way, it’s interesting to note that there are very few pure circles in Japanese writing except for the “handtakuten” （半濁点), which is the tiny circle in p-sound characters such as ぱ (pa). Kanji generally are formed from a series of lines, often horizontal or vertical but sometimes diagonal or curved. My guess is because writing a perfect circle takes much more time to write than a line, though perhaps there is a deeper reason.
(Update: After posting this article, I remembered that “omaru” means a small children’s toilet.)
I’ll close with a Youtube video of a song that I heard several years ago from a Japanese drama that I still can’t get out of my head (: It begins with the words “maru maru…”
(Stock photo of concentric circles in the featured image from Pexels.com)