March 03, 2006

The entire United States wept

I recently came across an article in the Mainichi Daily News describing how Tokyo police officers have compiled a glossary of juvenile jargon to help them decipher what Japanese teenagers are saying. Teen slang in Japan involves a great deal of wordplay, such as by shortening words and reversing their syllables (not unlike the veiled slang of many youth cultures, from French verlan to Indonesian prokem). Nouns are easily verbed by suffixing a clipped form of a word with the syllable -ru, as in famiru meaning 'go to a family restaurant.' The article reproduces some examples from the police glossary (originally appearing in the magazine Weekly Playboy), and as one would expect from ingroup slang many of the terms are cryptically allusive. Perhaps the most cryptic entry is the following:

Zenbei ga naita — literally, "the entire United States wept." Means nothing important.

Can you guess why that phrase might imply triviality?

Give up? The Mainichi writer explains:

One might be moved to wonder how the above expression could possibly take on such an unrelated meaning. After checking the blogs, your reporter came up with this explanation: When many U.S. films open in Japan, they are accompanied by posters claiming that American viewers were moved to tears. But the such films have little emotional impact on viewers here. So Japanese filmgoers have learned, apparently, to disregard such promotional claims as largely meaningless.

At first that struck me as wonderfully bizarre, but then I realized Americans often do something similar, sarcastically reframing the clichéd blurbs of movie or theater critics. One old one is "I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me!" Or: "It's the feel-good hit of the summer!" (Or for those who came of age in the mid-'80s, there's the line from the Saturday Night Live mock commercial for the hypnotist's show: "It was better than Cats!") Granted, none of these stock phrases has come to mean "nothing important," but the associative thinking behind the Japanese expression isn't all that far-fetched.

A side note: I stumbled upon this article via an exceptionally roundabout cruise through the blogosphere. How roundabout, you ask? A blog feed picked up Erin O'Connor's link to my recent snowclone post. Then clicking on Erin's tag for "snowclones" led to a post on cognoshanty about using Kai Carver's fun Google app as a snowclone accumulator. Comments on the cognoshanty post touched on the remodeling of clichés in other languages, in which context Kai mentioned zenbei ga naita. Kai found out about that by following a link on the pioneering Robot Wisdom blog to iMomus (the blog of performance artist Nick Currie, aka Momus), which in turn linked to Japundit, which linked, finally, to the Mainichi article. Whew!

By the way, the cognoshanty folks helpfully point out that Jorn Barger (illustrious coiner of the word "weblog") has been collecting snowclonish expressions on Robot Wisdom since the very early days of blogging, under the rubric MemeWatch / ClicheWatch. As noted on the Wikipedia entry for "snowclone," the first such expression catalogued by Robot Wisdom was back on Nov. 2, 1998: "The X formerly known as Y-not-Prince." This surely deserves special recognition in the annals of snowclonology — perhaps a fancy display case prominently exhibited in the Snowclone Hall of Fame (still under construction).

[Update: Anticipating Kai Carver's Gooph, Will Fitzgerald came up with his own snowclone/meme searcher based on Robot Wisdom's MemeWatch back in September 2003.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 3, 2006 01:57 PM