Blog: Languages

Posts about languages, etymology, natural languages, NLP.

Learning new vocabulary with Shimura Ken Jailbreak story

RIP Shimura Ken, 20 February 1950 – 29 March 2020. Spoiler alert for the Jailbreak story 脱獄物語.

I watched Shimura Ken (志村 けん) the first time doing his Bakatono-Sama character. With a simple Japanese, still hard to understand his jokes, but luckily most of his videos were translated to Portuguese or English.

He passed away a few days ago, so I looked for some of his old videos to remember him. “Jailbreak” (脱獄物語) is a story about jailed Shimura. His daughter visits him in jail, and after the guard leaves, Drift Ken starts explaining to his daughter his escape plan.

He demands her to bring some material to help him escape, and that’s where the comedy begins. Shimura Ken plays with Japanese words with similar meaning. That’s a great way to learn new vocabulary.

He asks for a hacksaw first 金鋸 (かねのこ, kanenoko), which his daughter confuses with a baby turtle 亀の子 (かめのこ, kamenoko).

Next he asks for three items. The first item requested is powder 火薬 (かやく kayaku), but she brings instead a suppository blister pack 座薬 (ざやく zayaku).

The second item are matches マッチ (macchi), but when he asks she simply slaps his hand タッチ (tacchi). The final item he requests is a fuse 導火線 (どうかせん doukasen), which she heards as すいません (suimasen), which means sorry.

In his last attempt to escape with the help of his daughter, he asks her to bring a rasp やすり (yasuri). This time she does bring the right item, but just not the right type.

She brings a sandpaper sheet 紙やすり (紙やすり kamiyasuri).

What does food have to do with something being easy?

Some time ago I saw this post on reddit about “朝飯前” (asa-meshi-mae), literally “before the morning meal” in Japanese. This is an expression that has the same meaning as piece of cake, meaning that something is very easy.

From the comments in that thread, there are more examples.

In English “<something> for breakfast” means that something is very easy.

I eat punks like you for breakfast

In Chinese “小菜一碟” (xiao3 cai4 yi4 die2) translates to “a plate of small dish”, and has the same meaning.

In Portuguese “sopa” is used with the same meaning of something being very easy.

Ganhar desse time é sopa!

And similarly in Spanish but with “pan comido”.

Swedish has “lätt som en plätt”, which according to the comments in that thread means “easy as a pancake”.

In German: "”ein Zuckerschlecken” that means “licking sugar”. And in its cousin language Dutch: “dat is een eitje” means “it’s a small egg” and “appeltje eitje” means “small apple small egg”, both meaning that something is very easy.

I think food has been associated with something being easy probably due to how easy some food was prepared, or how easy they were to be found and eaten. But there could be some more interesting history behind these expressions.

The etymology of bombast

On “On Writing Well”, Zinsser wrote:

“There is a deep yearning for human contact and a resentment of bombast.”

I thought “bombast” would be related to the Portuguese word “bombástico”, which can mean something like fantastic, amazing.

Turns out it has a different meaning. Google defines it as:

high-sounding language with little meaning, used to impress people.

But it also an interesting etymology.

1570s, “cotton padding,” corrupted from earlier bombace “raw cotton” (1550s), from Old French bombace “cotton, cotton wadding,” from Late Latin bombacem, accusative of bombax “cotton, ‘linteorum aut aliae quaevis quisquiliae,’ “ a corruption and transferred use of Latin bombyx “silk,” from Greek bombyx “silk, silkworm” (which also came to mean “cotton” in Medieval Greek), from some oriental word, perhaps related to Iranian pambak (modern panba) or Armenian bambok, perhaps ultimately from a PIE root meaning “to twist, wind.”

Also from the same source are Swedish bomull, Danish bomuld “cotton,” and, via Turkish forms, Modern Greek mpampaki, Rumanian bumbac, Serbo-Croatian pamuk. German baumwolle “cotton” probably is from the Latin word but altered by folk-etymology to look like “tree wool.” Polish bawełna, Lithuanian bovelna are partial translations from German.

From stuffing and padding for clothes or upholstery, meaning extended to “pompous, empty speech” (1580s).

Bombast was originally applied to a stuff of soft, loose texture, once used to swell the garment. Fustian was also a kind of cloth of stiff expansive character. These terms are applied to a high, swelling style of writing, full of extravagant sentiments and expressions. Bathos is a word which has the same application, meaning generally the mock heroic–that “depth” into which one falls who overleaps the sublime; the step which one makes in order to pass from the sublime to the ridiculous. [James de Mille, “Elements of Rhetoric,” 1878]