The term “baka” is one of the most common Japanese swear words used in anime, television shows, films, and real life. Although it is popular for being the Japanese equivalent for “idiot” or “fool”, it does actually have other meanings and is far more interesting than one would think. The often-used pejorative dates back many centuries ago and has various etymologies, mostly from Sanskrit and classical Chinese idioms.
An Overview of the Japanese Word, “Baka” – Its Meaning in English, Proper Pronunciation, Writing it in Kanji and Hiragana, and Saying it in Sign Language
English Meaning & Pronunciation of “Baka”
The common English translations for the word “baka” is stupid or foolish. The proper way to pronounce it is to read it exactly the way it is spelled, that is “bah-kah”.
Although “baka” is a frequently used insult in Japan, the dialects of the Japanese language show that there are regional variations when it comes to calling somebody a fool. “Baka” serves as the main Japanese translation for “a stupid person” in the Kanto dialect, while “aho” serves as the equivalent in the Kansai dialect.
A lot of Japanese dictionaries consider “baka” and “aho” to be synonyms. However, “aho” is believed to feature a more slang connotation than “baka”. Furthermore, other regions in Japan such as Osaka do not treat the word “aho” as an offensive word but treat “baka” to be an explosive insult.
The opposite can be said in other parts of Japan, so understanding the culture of each place is essential when it comes to the proper usage of such words.
Writing “Baka” in Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana
“Baka” can be written using kanji, hiragana, and katakana – the three alphabets that make up the modern Japanese writing system. Hiragana and katakana serve as syllabic alphabets with forty-seven characters each. Some characters from both alphabets share the same appearance or represent the same sound. In hiragana, “baka” is written as ばか, while in katakana, it is written as バカ.
Kanji, on the other hand, serves as the primary alphabet of the Japanese language and consists of over eight thousand Chinese ideograms that represent various things, concepts, and phenomena. Each kanji character can have multiple meanings, which depend on context and intonation. As such, hiragana characters can be placed over kanji characters to indicate the proper pronunciation.
“Baka” is often written in kanji as 馬鹿. Separating the two kanji characters, the words 馬 (uma) and 鹿 (shika) mean horse and deer, respectively. In this case, the actual meaning of the kanji characters has little to do with the general idea of the formed word. Instead, these characters were chosen as phonetic kanji transcriptions, better known as ateji. Earlier ateji variations of the word “baka” include:
跛家 – which literally means “one foot” and “house” in English
破家 – which literally means “broken” and “house” in English
馬娘 – which literally means “horse” and “daughter” in English
母娘 – which literally means “mother” and “daughter in English
莫迦 – which literally means “trillions” and “beautiful voice” in English
Saying “Baka” in Sign Language
One of the most common misconceptions about sign language is that it is the same for all countries across the globe. The truth of the matter is, each country follows its own set of gestures and signs just as each region has its own dialect. If the United States has its American Sign Language (ASL), Japan has its Japanese Sign Language (JSL).
Using ASL to communicate in Japan may cause some confusion. However, some signs, such as fingerspelling or hand alphabets, are shared by several countries. As such, the one-hand American manual alphabet of the letters “B” (lowercase) and “K” (capital) can be used to say the word “baka” in sign language.
The History of the Japanese Word, “Baka”
The earliest written proofs of the word “baka” date back to the Nanboku-cho Period, which lasted from 1336 to 1392. The Taiheki, a Japanese historical epic also known as the Chronicle of Great Peace, first used the word “bakamono” (馬鹿者) or “foolish person”.
The epic primarily focuses on the war between Emperor Go-Daigo’s Southern Court (Yoshino, Japan) and Ashikaga Takauji’s Northern Court (Kyoto, Japan). According to historians, the original editions of the Taiheki made use of the characters バカ for “baka”; the kanji characters, 馬鹿, were only used after the 1600s.
During the Bunmei-era, “baka” was included in the Setsuyoshu, a Japanese dictionary from the Muromachi Period that served as a collection of common words used on a daily basis. Each entry in the Setsuyoshu included kanji characters, proper Japanese pronunciation notes written in katakana, and a few comments and etymologies.
In this document, “baka” was written using several other ateji combinations including 破家 (break & family), 馬嫁 (horse & bride), and 母嫁 (mother & bride). Furthermore, the term was noted in the dictionary to be synonymous with “rozeki” (狼藉), which translates to mean “confusion” or “disorder” in English.
Many other Japanese texts that were written after the 1600s, such as the Koyo Gunkan military chronicle, also made use of “baka” using various ateji combinations. Ihara Saikaku was one of the first Japanese writers that consistently used the modern kanji characters, 馬鹿, for “baka” since 1682 when he wrote “The Life of an Amorous Man”, a classic Ukiyozoshi (a major genre of Japanese fiction) piece of literature.
The Etymologies of the Japanese Word, “Baka”
The exact origins of the “baka” remain uncertain up to this day. However, several Japanese scholars consider a handful of theories based on a classical Chinese idiom, a Sanskrit word, and folk etymologies to be more plausible than the others.
Zhi Lu Wei Ma (指鹿為馬) – Point to a deer and call it a horse
There is a Chinese idiom known as “zhi lu wei ma”, which literally means “point to a deer and call it a horse”. This saying originates from a story that talks about how the eunuch, Choko, of the Qin dynasty’s second emperor organized a rebellion by using a brilliant idea to find out who among the courtiers were more afraid of him than the emperor.
Choko brought a deer with him to the Imperial Palace as an offering to the emperor. Upon presenting the animal, he stated that what he had brought was a very rare breed of horse. As expected, Choko’s statement confused the emperor, who responded by asking “Is that not a deer?”
Using this argument about whether or not the animal he brought was a deer or horse, Choko addressed the courtiers and asked them whether or not they agreed that it was a horse. Understandably, those who were not afraid of Choko said that it was a deer, while those who feared him supported his statement that it was a rare horse. The courtiers who answered with deer were later killed by Choko.
From that story, the phrase “Zhi Lu Wei Ma” was formed to describe how power and fear could be used to force a false idea on other people. In Japanese, the idiom is read as “shika o sashite uma to nasu”. This etymology theory serves as the most believable among the many others that exist.
“Moha” is a Sanskrit word that means “illusion” or “ignorance” in English. It is written as 莫迦 which is another ateji variation of the word “baka”. It is believed that this word was esoterically used by monks before being widely used by the public.
Sadakage Amano, a Japanese scholar from the Edo Period, was the one who developed this etymology theory by also citing Bangladesh’s official language, Bengali, which is also based on Sanskrit. In this language, “baka” is used to refer to a fool, stupid person, or inexperienced individual.
Bai Juyi’s “Hakushi Monju”
The “Hakushi Monju” by Bai Juyi is an anthology that consists of various Chinese poetic stories. One poem included in the collection talks about a rich family that goes by the name, Uma (馬) Family. According to the story, this family spent all their money buying stupid objects and eventually went bankrupt.
It is believed that the word “bakamono” (馬家者) was formed from this tale, given that each kanji character can be translated to mean horse (馬), family (家), and person (者). This etymology theory was developed by Osamu Matsumoto, who presented it in his book titled, “Zenkoku Aho – Baka Bunpu Kou”.
The Meaning of “Baka” (破家) in the Scriptures of Zen Buddhism
In the Zen Buddhist scriptures, the word “baka” is written as 破家, which can be translated to mean “a family that has gone bankrupt” in English. According to Kiyoji Sato, a professor at Tohoku University, the word “bakamono” originated from this term as a means to refer to foolish individuals who would allow their families to lose all their money for stupid things.
“Wakamono” (若者) – Young People
The Japanese word “wakamono” means “youth” or “young people” in English. Izuru Shinmura, the editor of Kojien (a single-volume dictionary that included the theory of “baka” originating from the Sanskrit word “moha”), stated that the “w” of this word was changed to “b” and was then used to refer to stupid young people.
However, Shinmura was unable to leave any supporting documents for his etymology theory after his death. As such, many scholars question the truth of this idea. What is interesting, though, is the fact that Shinmura was unwilling to accept the published Sanskrit theory by Osamu Matsumoto.
Different Definitions, Meaning, and Ways to Use the Japanese Word, “Baka”
Although the Japanese word “baka” is frequently used as an insult, it can actually be used in different ways to convey multiple meanings. The most popular ways to use “baka”, including as a pejorative term, are as follows:
As an insult
Even though the etymology of “baka” as an insult may remain unknown up to this day, it is clear that it evolved throughout the years before taking its place as a popular Japanese swear word, used and loved by many today.
“Baka” does not actually literally translate to mean “foolish” in English. Its meaning lies somewhere along the lines of “lack of understanding”, “lack of thoughtfulness”, and “lack of knowledge”. The true meaning of the word depends on how it is used by a person, the person or object being referred to, and the setting of the situation it is being used in.
The vagueness of the word “baka” is one of the reasons why the Japanese community adores the swear word more than the others. Its seemingly unlimited insinuations mean that a person can pretty much use it for any situation and simply let the people correlate it to the issue at hand.
However, as previously mentioned, there are regional variations when it comes to the usage of “baka”. In the Kanto region where areas such as Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaraki, Gunma, and Tochigi can be located, “baka” only serves as a mild form of ridicule. On the other hand, “baka” serves as a greatly offensive insult in the Kansai region, which includes the areas of Shiga, Osaka, Hyogo, Wakayama, Kyoto, Nara, and Mie.
In Hokkaido, the word “baka” must especially be used with caution as the place is inhabited by diverse individuals who had moved there from different parts of the country. As such, there is no immediate way of telling how offended a person would be by “baka”.
Interestingly, a regional version of the popular insult already exists among the Hokkaido community. The equivalent term is known as “hankakusai” (はんかくさい), which literally means “shockwave” in English but is used to refer to foolish people, objects, or ideas in Hokkaido.
As an expression
Similar to the synonyms of “foolish” in the English language, “baka” can also be used as an expression to mock the silliness, childishness, and ridiculousness of a person. But, of course, using it to tease strangers can still come off as an insult on their end.
Using “baka” as an expression is often limited to close friends, family, or life partners. In these cases, a person may tease another individual for simple acts of clumsiness or irrationality without actually attacking his intellect.
In combination with other words
“Baka” is also often used in combination with other Japanese words to form clearer meanings. Some of the most common expressions or phrases that include “baka” are:
Obaka (大馬鹿) – which means “big idiot”
Geki baka (激馬鹿) – which means “foolish idiot”
Cho baka (超馬鹿) – which means “extremely foolish”
Baka yaro (馬鹿野郎) – which means “stupid man”
Obaka yaro (大馬鹿野郎) – which means “extremely stupid man”
Kobaka (小馬鹿) – which means “small idiot”