The Original Insulting Meaning Of Kawaii (かわいい)
Kawaii is Japan. Japan is Kawaii. It is the first word out of a baby’s mouth. It is used more than the English “the” or “a,” and is taught throughout elementary school as its own class. It is known as the “god” adjective, and can describe anything, anywhere, anytime. If you learn only one Japanese word, learn kawaii. If you learn only two words, learn kawaii a second time.
Not that you need a definition to the most obvious word in the Japanese language, but 可愛い (かわいい) means cute, lovely, sweet, pretty, etc.
This is now.
But then (a time before now), it meant pitiful or pathetic.
Something or someone you feel bad for and can’t even bear to look at.
There is a funny mishap that most Japanese learners have with 可愛い. They learn the grammar そう (sou) that attaches to adjectives to say that something “looks (adjective).” And you proceed to try to say 可哀想(かわいそう – kawaisou) to mean “looks cute.” Whoever you are talking to gives you a confused and annoyed look.
That’s because when your friend asked you what you thought of her new dress, you just told her she’s pathetic and you feel bad for her.
可哀想 is the successor of the original 可愛い.
Once the meaning of 可愛い changed, something had to take its place.
And if you are wondering about the kanji used in both of these phrases, and why both often appear without them, they are words formed with 当て字 (ateji). These are kanji added later on, that are used either for their meaning or reading.
So why the meaning transformation?
The prevalent theory is that the word’s meaning of pitiful/pathetic had started to develop a feeling and emotion of something/someone being small and weak, and wanting to reach your hand out to help them.
And here we are today. With kawaii. And cats. Lots and lots of cats.
Note: this post’s introduction paragraph’s facts are false… Believable though.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
Hah, I just got into the “そう” grammar myself. Certainly didn’t expect something like this.
Are there any other notable adjectives that undergo such transformations in meaning when combined with そう?
This just happens to be a pronunciation coincidence. I can’t think of any others that fall into anything like this.
On a somewhat related note, there’s an anime airing this season called 僕らはみんな河合荘, with 河合(かわい) being a family name and 荘(そう) meaning manor or apartments. So “We are all from the Kawai Apartments” with a double meaning of “We are all pathetic.”
Clever word play. Will have to check this out.