Today, many of us are sheltering at home, trying to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. I hope you're all doing well and staying safe. Today, we'll explore how a kanji meaning "boast, brag" made it inside the phrase "Happy Birthday."
Celebrating someone's calendar birthday is relatively new in Japan, arriving (with a lot of other Western culture) after World War II. Before that, everyone was considered to become "a year older" on January 1. The Western custom, including a katakana version of the English "Happy Birthday" song (ハッピーバースデー), has become more well-known.
The typical casual, but not slangy, way to say "Happy Birthday" is お誕生日おめでとう. The latter two of the three kanji are 常用 grade 1, among the first characters we learn. They're both known for having several readings (日 has about 5, and 生 has about 20).
誕 arrives later, in grade 6, with exactly one modern reading: タン. Its meanings are "nativity, be born", which makes sense for 誕生日; and "declension, lie, be arbitrary". Hmmm. The Wiktionary entry adds the meanings "absurd, brag". This meaning appears in a few not-so-common compounds like 虚誕 (exaggerated talk).
|誕||At a Glance (details at jisho.org)|
|Meaning nativity, be born, declension, lie, be arbitrary|
|Vocabulary 誕生日 (birthday), 生誕 (birth, nativity), ...|
|Bakuhatsu link breakdown of 誕|
|To Remember a prolonged (延) birthday speech (言)|
Where does the negative meaning come from? In Chinese, the same disparate meanings apply. The Chinese character is a compound of 言 (“word, speech”) for meaning and 延 ("prolong") for sound. The original meaning is "boast", which evolved into "absurd"; in Japanese, the modern meaning has largely supplanted it. (Although 延 provides the sound in Chinese, the onyomi differs in Japanese. However, it also can contribute meaning: after all, prolonged speech is often boasting.)
Okay; then where did the positive meaning come from? A JapanesePod101 blog post notes that 降誕 (holy birth; lit. descend + birth) originally meant making a fuss (誕) about a holy birth (降). That meaning appears to have disappeared long ago, as 降誕 in Chinese means "anniversary of the birth of the Buddha." I haven't found another source corroborating the "making a fuss" origin.
You know those times in your research where you find a gold mine of information, with fascinating detours and surprising connections, and what seems like a lifetime of additional topics to dig into? This is not one of those times. My trail for 誕 went cold pretty quickly.
If birthday celebrations are more popular among the young; and young Japanese like to make slang by 省略 (abbreviation)... then, there should be some terse slang for "Happy Birthday", and there is.
Take the first two mora of each word in 誕生日おめでとう, and you get たんおめ, or sometimes おめたん.
Make it more polite :-) by starting with お誕生日 and you get おたおめ, common on Facebook (at least in 2017).
Or, you can shorten "Happy Birthday" itself to yield はぴば. Native speaker @parker_kelly explained in May 2019: "１０代の若い子たちはSNSでよく使っていますね": "teenagers use it a lot on social media".If today is your birthday, はぴば! And thank you for reading!