With my first article in the new year and back from my holiday, I want to take a look at some Japanese sayings still in use which have their roots in sword-related vocabulary. Some of the sayings might not be that common and I would be happy if someone (native speaker) can come up with a few more. So please enjoy the following list which is in alphabetical order:
daijôdan ni furikabutte (大上段に振りかぶって) – Literally “to raise the sword in the overhead position,” which is regarded as the most aggressive position in swordsmanship, it means also “fearless,” “daring”, “keen” or “reckless” and the like.
denka no hôtô o nuku (伝家の宝刀を抜く) – This term means literally “to draw the precious family treasure sword.” As the literal translation suggests it is today either used to say “to use extreme methods” or to “one´s last resort”, or also to say “to play/pull one´s trump card.”
fuda-tsuki (札付き) – see origami-tsuki
futokoro-gatana (懐刀) – The futokoro-gatana (written with the characters [懐剣] also pronounced as kaiken) referred to a plainly mounted tantô worn in the belt or hidden (mostly by women) in the fold (the futokoro) of a kimono. Due to this wearing close to the body when it can easily and swiftly be drawn in case of an emergency, the term was soon applied to a confidant or right hand man, or also to a secret advisor.
ittô-ryôdan ni suru (一刀両断にする) – Literally “cutting in two with one sword stroke”, this saying means also “to use decisive (drastic) measures” or “to make a clear decision.”
jigane ga deru (地鉄が出る) – Literally “the steel appears,” for example when a blade is polished so often that the shingane appears or the jigane shows more unrefined areas. As a saying, it means “to reveal one´s true character.”
kaitô ranma o tatsu (快刀乱麻を断つ) – Literally this term means “to cut through felted hemp threads with a sharp blade.” The saying is about equivalent to the English “to cut the Gordian knot.”
kireaji ga ii (切れ味がいい) – This term means literally “having a good/sharp cutting edge” or just “sharp.” But it is also like the ambigious English word “sharp” in the context of “sharp tongue”. “ For example, kireaji no ii bunshô o kaku (切れ味のいい文章を書く) means “to write in an incisive style.”
menuki-dôri (目貫通り) – Literally this term means “menuki avenue”. Menuki are, when on unwrapped tantô same-covered hilts, are the most eye-catching of all sword fittings so a menuki avenue refers to the most eye-catching place of a town or the center of its main street. But there is also another explanation of the etymological origins of this saying, namely by the term iki-uma no me o nuku (生き馬の目を抜く), “to steal a living horses eye” with the meaning is “sharp practice,” “to catch a weasel asleep”. However, it is unclear how this saying (menuki in the meaning of “eye stealing/pulling” in the context of being swift or sneaky) explains the use of the menuki in menuki-dôri to refer to the most eye-catching place of a town or the center of its main street.
mi kara deta sabi (身から出た錆び) – This saying means literally “rust from the sword blade itself” and refers to a blade which keeps rusting due to improper or no maintenance. It is nowadays used to refer to the natural consequences of one´s act, to reap what you sow, to get what one deserves, or to pay for one´s mistakes.
moto no saya ni osameru (元の鞘に収まる) – This term referred originally to the fact that each sword is different in terms of sori (and shape) and requires an individually made saya. Literally the saying means “fits like the original saya” if a blade fits by chance into another saya. Nowadays the term is used to refer to an old love which is renewed or when a married couple reconciles after a time-out.
mukashi no tsurugi, ima no na-gatana (昔の剣今の菜刀) – This saying means literally “once a sword, now a vegetable knife” and refers to a once outstanding person or thing has turned into a John Doe or to something that just lies around and collects dust respectively. The English pendant to this saying would be “Hares may pull dead lions by the beard.”
namakura (鈍) – This character means originally “dull sword” but was also used to refer to a good-for-nothing or coward. But it also has pretty much the same ambiguous meaning as the English “dull”, although in this context mostly the on´yomi “don” of this character is used.
nuitara saigo (抜いたら最後) – This term means literally “drawing the sword because this is the end” and is like the English “as if there were no tomorrow.”
nukisashi-naranu (抜き差しならぬ) – This term means “unable to either draw or resheath one´s sword.” So the saying is used to expressed “to be in a jam” and it is though to go back to the “problem” with a too rusty sword: Did it rust in the saya, you can´t draw it, and did it rust out of its saya, you can´t resheath it.
origami-tsuki (折紙付き) – Literally this term means just “(blade) comes with an origami”. It is now used to say that something comes with a guarantee, or applied to a person that he or she is recognized. But also a person with a bad reputation can be referred to by a saying from the sword world, namely fuda-tsuki (札付き), i.e. “(blade) comes just with a fuda (and not with a regular origami).” Please refer to my book The Honami Family for further details on the differentiation of origami and fuda.
saigo no dotanba de (最後の土壇場で) – This term means “at the last elevated area” and referred to place of execution (dotanba, 土壇場) where also swords were tested on criminals. As saying it means “at the very last moment” or “at the eleventh hour,” i.e. the last chance of a delinquent to say something standing or lying tied up on the elevated earth mound before the executioner did his job, testing a sword blade at the same time.
saya-ate (鞘当て) – Literally “hitting saya”, this term refers to the (inevitable) duel resulting from hitting saya of inattentive samurai passing each other. Today the term is used to refer to a rival in general or a rival in love, with the context in mind that hitting someone´s saya, intentionally or unintentionally, ended always in a duel or at least in rivalry.
seppa-tsumaru (切羽詰まる) – This term means “tight like a seppa” and refers to “be at one´s wits end”, “to be cornered”.
shinken ni (真剣に) – Literally “with a real sword” (not a bokken or a shinai), this term means just “seriously” or “in all seriousness.”
shinogi o kezuru (鎬を削る) – This term means literally “to scrape your shinogi” and referred to a fierce sword duel as a Japanese swordsman usually tries to parry an opponents blade with the shinogi or the mune and not with the cutting edge of his sword. Nowadays the term shinogi o kezuru is used in general to a fierce fight where sparks fly.
sori ga awanai (反りが合わない) – This term means “the sori of a sword does not match (with a certain saya)” as each sword has a different curvature and shape and needs thus an individually made scabbard. So sori ga awanai means today “to be unable to cooperate”, “they cannot agree,” or “they fight like cat and dog.”
tantô-chokunyû (単刀直入) – This term means literally “entering (the enemy lines) alone an just with one´s sword.” It is now used to express things like “to speak buntly,” “to ask point-blank”, “without beating about the bush” and the like.
tsuba-zeriai (鐔迫り合い) – The term means “to push each others sword guard,” that means a sword duel has gone close combat and the duellists standing tsuba to tsuba, both trying to push forward. So this saying stands for two opponents or competitors at the moment right before the decisive move for one of them to win.
tsuke-yakiba (付け焼き刃) – The term means literally “add a tempered edge”, namely to a dull or crudly made blade, i.e. when a swordsmith improved such a dull or crudly made blade by attaching a new cutting edge of higher-quality steel. As a saying the term refers to “overnight knowledge,” “pretension,” “affectation,” or someone “semi-skilled.”
yaki-naoshi (焼き直し) – As we know, this term refers to the process of retempering a blade which had lost its hardened edge for whatever reason. The verb “to retemper” is yaki-naosu (焼き直す). But the term means also “plagiarism,” “imitation” and “copy”, or “to imitate,” “to copy” or “to crib” in its use as verb.
yari ga futte mo (槍が降っても) – Literally “even though it is raining spears”, this saying means “no matter what happens.”