Saturday, March 23, 2019

kawaii 可愛い

WIP: this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In Japanese, kawaii 可愛い means "cute," and, sometimes, "pitiable." It's also spelled kawaii かわいい, without kanji.

It's an i-adjective and can be used toward people, animals, drawings, etc. pretty much like "cute" in English. Also like "cute" in English, kawaii isn't the exactly same thing as "pretty," kirei 綺麗, or "beautiful," utsukushii 美しい. But most "beautiful girls," bishoujo 美少女, are also kawaii anyway.

The second meaning of kawaii, "pitiable," or "pitiful," sounds rather odd, but it actually exists. The connection these two words share, pitiful and cute, is an faint nuance of inferiority.

Nobody's scared of a cute lil' hamster. Look at it: it's cute! But if it was a lion or a tiger or a cheetah, with mouth full of teeth, then you'd be scared. In such way, people associate small, inoffensive things with cuteness. And inoffensive means powerless. And powerlessness is pitiful.

The word kawaii in its dictionary form is rarely used in this sense of pity. One of its inflections, kawaisou 可愛そう, "seems cute," or "seems pitiful," with the sou そう suffix that means "it seems," is more commonly used in such sense.

Since kawaisou pretty much always means "pitiful" and kawaii pretty much never means "pitiful," people figured it would make sense to spell them differently, since they pretty much mean different things anyway.

Thus was born the ateji that is kawaisou 可哀想, which means "it looks pitiful," or more naturally: "that poor thing."

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