Verbification: how (almost) anything can turn into a verb in Japanese

By | September 6, 2022

Japanese verbs, a core part of the language, are relatively straightforward in terms of how they are structured (most end with a “u” sound, i.e. “taberu”, “kau”, “oyogu”, etc.) and how they are conjugated (unlike English verbs, 99.9% of verbs in Japanese follow a set of clear rules). Knowing how to understand and effectively use verbs is one of the keys to mastering Japanese grammar.

Japanese nouns (for example 勉強 “benkyou”, meaning “study” or “lesson”) can often be transformed into verbs using the する (suru) helping verb, which means “to do” on it’s own. The particle “を” (o) is also sometimes used after the noun to indicate it is the direct object of an action. For example:

  • 僕は今、勉強をしています (boku wa ima, benkyou o shite imasu).
  • I am studying now.

In this case, the polite form of the “~te iru” form of suru is used (shite imasu), which indicates an in-progress action or state and is roughly equivalent to Engilsh’s “~ing”.

However there is another way to transform nouns into verbs, which while a bit less common can be much more fun, so I wanted to dedicate an article to that.

First let’s take the verb 事故 (jiko), which means accident. We can say 事故に遭う (jiko ni au) to mean “get in an accident”. However, here is another form that doesn’t use a helper or other verb:

  • 彼は事故ったことない (kare wa jikotta koto nai)
  • He has never gotten into an accident before.

Here we see the word “jikotta” which may feel unfamiliar, but if we consider it as a verb we can interpret it as being in the past tense (like “shita” (did)). It turns out that 事故る (jikoru), which can also be written じこる or ジコる, is essentially a verbalization of the noun “jiko”.

This pattern can be applied to other nouns. For example, a few years ago I remember coming across a line like this in (or all places) a literary journal:

  • あたしは今朝、久しぶりにゲリった (atashi wa kesa, hisashiburi ni geritta)

Here the unfamiliar verb is “geritta”, can you tell what noun it stems from?

It turns out it is the verb form of 下痢 (“geri”, meaning “diarrhea”). It’s important to note that verbs made like this are generally conjugated like “aru”, *not* like “taberu”. That’s why it is “geritta”, not “gerita”, even though there is a “i” sound there.

Here is another example:

  • 俺のパソコンはまたバグっちゃった (ore no pasokon wa mata bagucchatta)

This is a bit tricker since we have the ~”chatta” form, but if you know that essentially means “~te shimatta”, then you can figure out the verb being used here is バグる (baguru). From the context, can you guess what it means? 

バグる comes from バグ (bug), but in the context of machines, not insects. So the above sentence can be translated as:

  • My computer had a problem again.

Note that this can be used in a bit wider sense than English “bug”, since it could refer to hardware as well, whereas we don’t usually say “my hardware had a bug”.

After I finished the draft of this article, I actually came across another example of verbification that was a bit surprising. A Youtube video’s thumbnail had the word “ディスり” (disuri). It turns out this is a form of the verb ディスる (disuru) which comes from “disrepect” in English, and has a similar meaning in Japanese. Ironically, in the U.S. sometime around the 80s the word “dis” was used for this very meaning, though I haven’t heard that expression used in over a decade or longer.

These are just a few examples, but keep in mind these verbs can be used just like any other regular verb, and can be conjugated in any of the usual forms (~tai, ~te, pre-masu, etc.).

In closing, I wanted to make it clear that some of these verbs that arose out of verbification are in common use (like “jikoru” and “baguru”) and others may be less common and have a decidedly casual or slangy feel (to be honest, I’ve only ever seen “geriru” that one time). Doing this with any arbitrary verb may lead to funny looks from native speakers, though you will probably get your point across. In fact, I’ve heard comedians use forms like this for effect, and once in a while I will try to do the same just to be funny.

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