75 - This Japanese Smells Like Scattered Barbarians

There is a strange stream of words flowing through my brain.

Which somehow led to me looking up the origins of the phrase, "smells fishy."

I did a search, but nothing too cool came up. Some say it comes from the phrase "slippery as a fish."

The more plausible explanation, I think, is that fish with a strong smell is not to be trusted.

They have a similar word in Japanese: うさんくさい, which means "fishy" or "suspicious."

In this word is the word 臭い(くさい // smelly; stinking).

But instead of smelling "fishy," they are saying that something smells "うさん."

Which means...

*Googles a bunch.*

...well, nothing. Kind of.

The rarely seen kanji would be 胡散臭い(うさんくさい).

With a kanji-by-kanji breakdown, that's:

胡(// barbarian
散(さん // scatter
臭い(くさい // smelly; stinking

I guess I could see how that makes sense.

I mean, a scattered bunch of barbarians would surely smell... suspicious.

This article on the origin of the word says that maybe it is an offshoot of the word 胡乱(うろん // suspicious; fishy)... a word I've never heard before. They also have a couple of other theories on that page, but none of them are very convincing.

I'm going to go with "This smells like scattered barbarians" to be a totally plausible explanation for this word's meaning "fishy."

Oh, by the way, if you're obsessed with kanji, you're probably hating life as you try to figure out what's up with these weird readings for 胡散(うさん). That same article I just mentioned says:

胡 を う と よむ の は とうおん
散 を さん と よむ の は かんおん の ため、
うさん は わせいかんご と おもわれる。

The reading of "u" for 胡 is from the T'ang reading of Chinese characters,
and 散 as "san" is from the Han reading of Chinese characters,
so this means that the readings can be thought of as a type of Japanese-Chinese.

Literally: [No word-by-word breakdown, because that sentence is pretty useless].

I had heard the word 和製英語(わせい えいご // Japanese-English), which literally means "made-in-Japan English."

This includes words like:

("baby car" instead of "stroller")

("paper driver" for a person with a license that never drives)

("my pace" for a person that does things at their own pace)

However, this was my first time hearing the word 和製漢語(わせい かんご //Chinese-English), literally meaning "made-in-Japan Chinese Word."

So much to learn.

So little time.

Now I'll shut up and teach something that's actually useful...

Here are some words using うさんくさい...

うらないし って うさんくさい。
I don't trust fortune-tellers. // I'm suspicious of fortune-tellers.
Literally: "fortune-teller + って + suspicious."

あの ひと の はなし うさんくさい よね。
That guy's story smells fishy. // There's something fishy about what he said.
Literally: "that + の + person + の + talk/story + suspicious."

Even in English, I think it's pretty difficult to nicely say that something smells fishy.

But yeah--be careful using this phrase. It's not very nice.

I think the other (perhaps more common) word for "suspicious" is not as strong:



この とおり あやしい ね。
This is a shady street. // This is a suspicious-looking street.
Literally: "this + street + suspicious + ね."
Note: The nuance is that the street might be dangerous.

あやしい ひと に ちかづいちゃ ダメ。
Don't go near suspicious-looking people.
Literally: "suspicious + person + に + get near + no good."

やすすぎて あやしい。
I'm suspicious because it's so cheap.
Literally: "too cheap + suspicious."

How to Use These Phrases Like a Boss... in 3 Seconds!

Here's how I use these phrases all the time.

(Get excited because you don't need to learn any grammar for this one.)

Step #1 - Notice or acknowledge the existence of a shady/suspicious person, place, or situation.

Step #2 - Say 「なんか + 怪しい」OR「なんか + うさんくさい」

なんか is a hard word to translate.

It's a bit like saying "something like" or "(is) somehow."

By adding it before our "suspicious" vocab, it gives off the nuance that we justfeel that something is a bit off.

I think it's worth noting that in the English phrase "something smells fishy," we use the sense of smell, which is usually a blurred, hard-to-pin-down sense. Then we throw a "something" in there to further clarify we're not sure exactly what part of the situation is suspicious.

In Japanese, we can use なんか.

But don't take it from me.

Let's look online at some suspicious people's thoughts and words...

This article is titled:

なんか あやしい…... と かんじたら!
かれ の うわき を みぬく わざ みっつ

For when you feel like something's a bit off,
here are 3 tricks for finding out if he's cheating on you!

Literally: "something like + suspicious...... + と + when/if you felt + his + fooling around + を + see through + technique(s) + three!"

And this article is titled:

なんか あやしい!「カレ が きゅうに つめたく なった とき」 おとな な たいしょほう よっつ
Something smells fishy!
4 mature ways to deal with when he suddenly starts acting cold and distance.

Literally: "something like + suspicious! + 'he + が + suddenly + cold + became + time' + adult + coping methods + four."

Those long titles might be quite intimidating, but the key is just to remember the first part, which is what the suspicious partner is thinking or feeling:

💀 ❆ 💀 ❆ 💀
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓

なんか あやしい
There's something suspicious about it.

↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑
💀 ❆ 💀 ❆ 💀

But we can't let 怪しい(あやしい)get all the love.

胡散臭い(うさんくさい)has articles, too.

This one, for instance, is actually about the English phrase, "There's something fishy going on:"

なんか うさんくさい ね。
There's something fishy going on.
Literally: "something like + suspicious + ね."

Anyways, yeah. Let's learn that stuff.

Off-Topic Grammar

Earlier we had this example:

やすすぎて あやしい。
I'm suspicious because it's so cheap.
Literally: "too cheap + suspicious."

I think we discussed this a bit in a past lesson, but ~過ぎる(すぎる)can attach to the stems of verbs and adjectives.

In a classroom, they'll teach you with the classic uses, like:

I ate too much.

Well, they'll probably actually make you say it a little more formally as:

I ate too much.

And they'll say that when we add ~過ぎる(すぎる)to stems, it always has a negative connotation.

I mean, that's OK to teach... I think.

I would probably agree that, technically speaking, "too" is always a bad thing.

But in casual speech, it can sometimes mean "very, very."

And the same thing happens in Japanese.

Here are some of my favorites...

はつおん よすぎ!
Your pronunciation is too good!
Literally: "pronunciation + too good."
Note: For example, if you're with another non-native speaker, and they're really good at Japanese, you can compliment them by saying this... ideally in front of a native speaker. Everyone loves being complimented, yo!

TOEIC で900点取ったんだ。
トーイック で きゅうひゃく てん とった んだ。
I scored a 900 on TOEIC.
Literally: "TOEIC + で + 900 points + took + んだ."

Seriously? That's (too) amazing!
Literally: "seriously? + too amazing."

Bonus Phrases

なんか くさくない?
Is it just me, or does something smell bad?

ベビーカー って わせいえいご なんだ よ。
"Baby-car" is Japanese English [wasei-eigo].

あたし ペーパードライバー。
I have a license, but I don't drive.
Literal:I + paper driver

やまちゃん は マイペース だねー。
Yama-chan does everything at his own pace. // You (=Yama-chan) do everything at your own pace, don't you?

Complete and Continue