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The gag expression 掘った芋いじるな (hotta imo ijiruna) sounds to japanese ears uncannily like "What time is it now?" I'm guessing this is Showa era humour, since English probably sounded more foreign then than now.

Does anyone know the origin of this saying, and anything about how popular it was (or wasn't)?

For bonus points: do you know of any other gag expressions like this? I only know one other: アメリカではバス降りたい時は何と言いますか? 。。。揚げ豆腐(あげどうふ) = I get off.

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I have heard 掘った芋いじるな as follows: “If you want to ask the current time but you cannot speak English, just say 掘った芋いじるな and they will understand that you want to know the time.” So the claim made here is that English-speaking people will hear 掘った芋いじるな as “What time is it now?” I have never tried saying this, so I do not know if it is true or not. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 18 '11 at 1:30
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Hot taimo ij[iru] na - very accented "What time is now?" –  Troyen Jun 18 '11 at 4:15
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I doubt any English speaker could ever understand "hotta imo ijiru na", but then again, a fully Japanese accented "wotto taimu izu nau" is not a lot more understandable. :) –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 18 '11 at 11:27
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I also just remembered the ultra low brow "Can you ski?" which is trans-bliterated as "巨乳好き?" –  crunchyt Jun 19 '11 at 5:30
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1 Answer

up vote 6 down vote accepted

To my surprise, after some research I found a strong link between the "hotta imo" phrase and John Manjiro, Japan's first "exchange student" to America.

John Manjiro was a Japanese fisherman who, along with his four brothers, was ship wrecked on a pacific island and rescued by a passing American whaling ship. After being carried to Honolulu (Dec 17, 1850), Manjiro stayed aboard his rescuer's ship and later learnt English, navigation and whaling skills (ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakahama_Manjir%C5%8D). He later returned to Japan and became the English translator & advisor to the Shogun on foreign matters.

Manjiro apparently wrote a book called 「英語練習帳」which used the "hotta imo iji-ru na" approach to transliterating English into Japanese (ref: 「日本語「らしさ」の言語学」 "Nihongo rashisa no gogengaku", Kodansha p254)**

Coincidentally, I found some other "sound alike" sayings I'd like to share:

  • 問題ない 【mondai nai】no problem >> monday night
  • カッパ亭 【kappa tei】 Kappa Pavilion (sushi chain) >> cuppa tea
  • 上げ豆腐 【agedoufu】deep fried tofu >> I get off
  • どう致しまして 【douitashimashite】you're welcome >> don't touch my moustache!
  • 犬寝る 【ken neru】dogs sleep >> kennel
  • 前代未聞 【zendai mimon】never heard of before >> Then Die, Me moan!
  • 斉藤寝具【saitou shingu】Saito Bedding >> sightseeing
  • 危ない 【abunai】dangerous >> have an eye!
  • 坊や【bouya】boy >> boy

** I found this reference to the book: http://kotobakai.seesaa.net/article/8173641.html

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ken neru (犬寝る) and ton neru (豚寝る) >> tunnel ...... :P –  YOU Jun 19 '11 at 6:48
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I have an English coworker who lived in Osaka when she was young, and she remembers the "don't touch my mustache" expression as a way to say "you're welcome" in Japanese. –  Troyen Jun 19 '11 at 21:26
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Hah! I also remember "Eat the yucky mess" for いただきます 【itadakimasu】 –  crunchyt Jun 19 '11 at 23:34
    
@crunchyt LOL. Kinda late but that one made my day! –  Lukman Aug 10 '11 at 13:01
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