Japanese idioms using body parts

Even though idioms are not basic nouns or verbs, they are among the most essential expressions in everyday speech. Like other languages, Japanese has many idioms using body parts. In this article, I would like to introduce some of the most common idioms used in everyday life.

Do you know what the following idioms mean?:

耳(みみ)が遠(とお)い one’s ears are far away
顔(かお)が広(ひろ)い one’s face is wide
口(くち)が軽(かる)い one’s mouth is light

耳(みみ)が遠(とお)い one’s ears are far away

Understanding this idiom is relatively simple. What happens when your ears are far away? The correct answer is ‘difficulty in hearing’. 耳(みみ)が遠(とお)い is an idiom that describes a condition of having poor hearing. It is easy to remember the idiom this way, but in fact the word 遠(とお)い(distant) used in this idiom means ‘sluggish’, which describes a condition in which a person’s hearing has deteriorated due to ageing or a chronic illness. There are other idioms that use this second meaning of 遠(とお)い. For example, 気(き)が遠(とお)くなる(one’s mind becomes sluggish) is a state of being so shocked that one becomes dazed. It is often used to exaggerate the degree of surprise rather than the actual state of fainting.

Examples:
耳(みみ)が遠(とお)いので、大(おお)きな声(こえ)で話(はな)してください
I’m deaf/I have poor hearing, so please speak louder.

祝日(しゅくじつ)も残業(ざんぎょう)なんて気(き)が遠(とお)くなる
I can’t deal with working overtime on public holidays.

顔(かお)が広(ひろ)い one’s face is wide

広(ひろ)い means ‘large in area’. If you hear this idiom for the first time, it may sound like a swear word meaning ‘You have a big face’. In Japanese, however, this expression is rather complimentary. The Japanese word 顔(かお) (face) has a metaphorical meaning of ‘visibility’. For example, the idiom 顔(かお)が利(き)く(one’s face is valid) means that the person’s name recognition works to his/her advantage. For example, receiving a special discount at a restaurant owned by a friend. 顔(かお)が広(ひろ)いdescribes a state in which person’s name recognition works over a wide area. Generally, it is someone who has a lot of friends in society and powerful. If you say 大(おお)きい (large) instead of 広(ひろ)い (large in area), that literally means “your face is big”, so make sure you don’t say it wrong!

Examples:
田中(たなか)さんはこの店(みせ)に顔(かお)が利(き)く
Ms. Tanaka is recognised in this shop (and therefore guaranteed priority).

山本(やまもと)さんはIT業界(ぎょうかい)で顔(かお)が広(ひろ)い
Mr. Yamamoto has a lot of friends/power in the IT industry.

口(くち)が軽(かる)い one’s mouth is light

As in other languages, 軽(かる)い (light) has many figurative meanings. When 軽(かる)い is used in Japanese to refer to a body part or person, it often means ‘frivolous and untrustworthy’. For example, 尻(しり)が軽(かる)い (one’s hips are light) describes someone (mainly women) who is shifty and quickly cheats on their partners, etc. Similarly, 口(くち)が軽(かる)い describes someone who is talkative and is quick to reveal secrets or information that should not be told. Also, 彼(かれ)は軽(かる)い (he is light) indicates someone who is not trustworthy, lacking in sincerity or discretion, even if his words and deeds are friendly. However, 心 (こころ)が軽(かる)い (light-hearted) is the same expression as in English and is positive. It describes a state of being free from worry and feeling fine.

Examples:
口(くち)が軽(かる)いのは彼女(かのじょ)の欠点(けってん)だ
Her inability to keep secrets is her downfall.

試験(しけん)が終(お)わって心(こころ)が軽(かる)い
Light hearted after the exam.

Idioms composed of nouns and adjectives

The idioms introduced in this article consist of a combination of nouns and adjectives. Adjectives have antonyms, but it is important to note that the meaning of an idiom does not follow the rule. For example, the antonym for 遠(とお)い(distant) is 近(ちか)い(close), but 耳(みみ)が近(ちか)いmeans the state of being quick to obtain rumours. The state of being able to hear well is 耳(みみ)がいい (one’s ears are good). An antonym for 口(くち)が軽(かる)い is 口(くち)が堅(かた)い (one’s month is firm). It is not 重(おも)い (heavy). 堅(かた)い denotes rigid and inflexible. Understanding these nuances helps to understand not only the meaning of the idiom, but also the image the Japanese have of the word. When you find a new idiom, also look for its antonyms and synonyms. And don’t forget to pay attention to what differences there are from the idioms in your mother tongue.

Reference:
Weblio辞典 https://www.weblio.jp/phrase/%E8%BA%AB%E4%BD%93_1

デジタル大辞泉・小学館 https://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/word/%E9%81%A0%E3%81%84/

Book Japanese lessons!

I’m offering Japanese lessons and distributing articles on italki.

Book Japanese lessons on italki

Listen on:

Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyAnchorRadio PublicCastBoxPocketCastsCastroPodfriendPlayer.fmOvercastPodcast IndexStitcherListen NotesPodcast AddictYouTubeTuneIn

Categories