Egui: One Japanese Word’s Journey from “Awful” to “Awesome!”

Egui: One Japanese Word’s Journey from “Awful” to “Awesome!”

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"Egui" in Japanese used to have a thoroughly negative meaning. Not anymore. Here's when - and why - that changed.

Language is wonderful. As the constantly evolving product of the minds of millions or billions of people, there’s no way to predict when – and how – it’s going to change.

Japanese has undergone some titanic shifts – from the birth of the kana syllabaries to the shift in the literary world from kobun to the spoken vernacular. And it continues to undergo far more gradual shifts in meaning and usage.

As an example, we need look no further than what the youth of Japan have done to the word egui (エグい).

Young people agree: it’s cool to be egui

The good old days when "egui" referred to one's throat...
Picture: beauty-box / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Originally, egui (えぐい) meant “harsh” or “astringent”. More particularly, it referred to anything that produced a harsh reaction or stimulus to your throat when eaten or swallowed. The expression comes from the verb えぐる, “to perturb”, with 喉をえぐる (nodo o eguru; make one’s throat hurt) being a standard phrase. The word dates back to Japan’s Heian Era in the form ゑぐし (egushi).

From this, egui took on its common secondary meaning of “terrible” or “awful”. That’s how many Japanese in their 40s and up understand the word to this day.

But Japan’s youth are using egui in the exact opposite sense.

Reporter Handa Shigehisa, who’s 44, noticed this at his son’s soccer game when other players shouted “egui! egui!” whenever someone made a nice play. This use of egui is closer to “killer!” or “awesome!”.


Somewhat dumbfounded and feeling out of touch with today’s youth, Handa set up shop outside of Nagano Station and did an informal survey. He asked people in their teens and 20s: do you see egui as a good thing? Or a bad thing?

Obviously, this wasn’t any sort of scientific study. But the results were clear: out of 31 people, only two saw egui as a negative word. The remaining 29 overwhelmingly saw it in a positive light. And even the two people who used it in a negative sense said that they see no problem with its positive usage.

The versatility of “positive egui”

"Egui" now has a sizable number of very different meanings.
“Egui” now has a sizable number of very different meanings. (Source: Jisho)

In this more modern sense, “egui” takes on a meaning of “something that exceeds the ordinary or expected”.

The young people that Handa interviewed say they use it in a variety of situations. It can refer to a person who’s exceptionally good at something – like a dedicated student or someone who’s got moves on the basketball court. Others say they use it when surprised. One 19yo said she uses the word エグいい – an elision of エグい and いい (ii; good) that brings to mind the expression カッコいい (kakkoii; stylish, cool-looking) – when seeing well-edited pictures on social media of her favorite idols.

Indeed, Handa found that this positive usage is so engrained that some people in their teens were startled to learn the word ever had a negative meaning!

The yabai-ification of “egui”

Ukiyo-e depiction of a kabuki performer in the role of Nezumi Kozo, legendary Edo-era thief.
Ukiyo-e depiction of a kabuki performer in the role of Nezumi Kozo, legendary Edo-era thief.

Longtime UJ readers may notice a pattern here. The Japanese word yabai (やばい) endured a similar metamorphosis. Originally used by criminals to warn one another of danger, yabai has since taken on close to two dozen different meanings.

The word 若者言葉 (wakamonokotoba; language of youth) refers to this phenomenon whereby young people either invent a word, or seize on an existing word and, in a collective shift of consciousness, decide to imbue it with a new meaning. In the case of egui, young Japanese picked up on the usage from various Japanese dialects – especially from Kansai-ben, the dialect of the Kansai region including Kyoto and Osaka – from TV and ran with it.

Yamada Kenzo, a professor specializing in the Japanese language, says that positive meanings of egui date back to as far as the pre-war period in areas such as Hyogo Prefecture. He attributes the shift in egui to entertainers as well as online YouTube stars and influencers. (It wouldn’t be the first time that the Internet changed the Japanese language.)

Older people in Japan sometimes fret that the “language of today’s youth” risks eroding the diversity of Japanese. But Yamada says there’s nothing unique about egui historically. “That’s the prerogative of a youth in tune with today’s trends.”

A new adjectival pattern as well

If you know Japanese, you may have also noticed something else peculiar about egui (エグい).

Japanese has two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is commonly used for parts of speech, conjugated endings, common words, and words with rare kanji. Katakana is used for loan words and for emphasis.

Typically, you won’t find katakana and hiragana used together in the same word. Yet here comes エグい, breaking that rule with a katakana base and a hiragana adjectival ending. egui is also bending the rules by using katakana for native Japanese words as opposed to loan words.

This “katakana + い” form is also a trait of wakamonokotoba. It applies to about 50 or so words in modern Japanese, including エモい (emoi; originally melancholic but now meaning nostalgic); ラグい (ragui; laggy, as in an online game); チルい (chirui; relaxing – i.e., “chillin'”); and テクい (tekui; having good technique – e.g., of a sports player).

The site Cotohajime says that, when words are used in this form, it’s a signal that they’re being used in their narrower, more “trendy” meaning. For example, 緩い (yurui) means “loose”, but ユルい signifies a narrower meaning of “relaxed” or “slacking”.

Much egui about nothing?

Is this play egui? You decide! (Pictured: Two soccer players competing to kick a ball)
An egui play? (Picture: MakiEni / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

So is egui another example of today’s youth ruining the Japanese language?

Perusing the Yahoo! News comments on Handa’s article doesn’t show a lot of surprise over this evolution. In an upvoted comment, one man in his 40s says he even recalls egui taking on this usage during sports game in his 20s.

Not everyone agrees, however. One commenter blames variety TV show entertainers like Matsumoto Hitoshi for the spread of this new egui and says they won’t use it casual conversation because it feels “vulgar”.

But the young people Handa interviewed make it clear that such objections hold little sway. Whether anyone likes it or not, egui‘s new meaning is here to stay.

Yabai! The Most Versatile Word in the Japanese Language?


「エグい」って褒め言葉なの? 10~20代の9割が「良い意味でも使う」と回答 「ヤバい」以来の衝撃. Shinno Mainichi Shimbun Digital

若者言葉② カタカナ+「い」形容詞. Cotohajime

えぐい. Weblio


Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

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