How Did “Octopus” Become a Japanese Insult?

How Did “Octopus” Become a Japanese Insult?

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Octopus insulting a samurai
Pictures: KIMASA; kino / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Did someone just call you an "octopus"? How "tako" became both a fish and an insult in Japanese (spoiler alert: it involves samurai).

There’s a misconception that Japanese is a “gentle” language without a lot of insults and swear words. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are myriad ways to bring someone low in the language.

One of them – “tako” – might sound like someone’s calling you a marine animal. In fact, calling someone “tako” goes back to Japan’s Edo era – and, according to one theory, is deeply associated with the era’s feudal hierarchy.

“Tako” as an insult

Kid being mercilessly insulted by his peers (tako as an insult piece)
Picture: ペイレスイメージズ1(モデル) / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

If you’ve learned a little Japanese, you’ve likely heard “tako” as the word for “octopus”. It is, after all, in one of Japan’s most popular dishes, takoyaki (たこ焼き). Often stylized in hiragana, you may occasionally set sight on its kanji as well (蛸).

But “tako” can also be a general all-purpose insult, meant to call someone an idiot or slow-witted. According to one author, some heterosexual women even have their husbands listed as “tako” in their cell phone address books.

Articles in Japanese about “tako” capture people’s curiosity towards this use of the word. Why call someone an “octopus”? Why not a “squid” or another seafood? Is it because octopuses have generally silly-looking faces?

The origins of the insulting “tako”

Popular Octopus Games by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
“Popular Octopus Games” (流行 蛸のあそび), a print by ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1840-1842).

Well, according to one theory, people did actually used to use squid, or “ika” (イカ) as an insult. This ika/tako back-and-forth supposedly evolved from Japan’s Edo era – and is inherently tied to the pecking order of samurai.

Satoshi on the site Sushidou, which focuses on Edo-style sushi, breaks it down like this. In the shogunate system, vassals of the shogun were divided into hatamoto (旗本) and gokenin (御家人). The hatamoto were the upper rank and the gokenin were a lower rank of vassal.

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What did this mean in practice? The hatamoto had the right of omemie-ijou (御目見以上), which means they could request an audience with the shogun. The lower-ranked gokenin had no such right. Some more higher-ranked hatamoto, the chokujiki hatamoto, were direct followers of the shogun and had even greater rights, such as wearing a hakama (袴) and riding a horse.

In the word omemie-ijou, “ijou” (以上) means “above” or “upper”. So the hakamoto would insult the gokenin by calling them 以下 (ika), or “lower”, “beneath” – a homonym with the word “ika” for squid. So what could the poor gokenin do but shoot back with “tako”?

…at least, that’s one theory

Octopus and squid
Picture: Syu / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Sadly, while an interesting theory, that’s all this explanation is. There are other explanations for how the insult came about. The second most prevalent is that a shaved head resembles an octopus’ head, so this evolved as an insult for bald people or Buddhist monks.

Satoshi notes that this use of animals as an insult isn’t limited to Japanese. English, she points out, uses words such as “donkey” (or “ass”) and “chicken” as pejoratives as well. English and Spanish also share a host of other animal insults, including “pig”, “rat”, “snake”, etc.

Japanese itself has a few other animal-based insults. 負け犬 (make-inu, “loser-dog”) is a general term for “loser”. “Maguro” (マグロ), or tuna, isn’t just a sushi ingredient – it’s also used to refer to a woman who lies motionless in bed during sex.

The true origin of “tako” as an insult may be lost to time. But it’s weirdly comforting to know that, even 300+ years ago, our predecessors needed new and inventive ways to get the verbal upper hand on their superiors.

Sources

[1] なぜ「タコ」は悪口?Sushidou

[2] What animals does your language use to insult people with? Reddit

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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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