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I've heard someone say that "一匹" was used at the end of the original Godzilla movie, with Dr. Yamane saying that Godzilla wasn't the last one of "them".

Why did he use that, as opposed to "一頭"? Do Japanese speakers sometimes use the wrong counter to be ironic, or is there another reason?

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The counter 「匹」is also used for counting giants in the anime 進撃の巨人, which I find also curious –  waldrumpus Aug 3 at 10:01
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I think people who don't know the story might count those giants "~匹", "~頭", "~体" or even "~人", and whichever sounds pretty reasonable. But knowing the story, "~人" is way too sympathetic :) –  naruto Aug 4 at 8:02
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Related: Counter for 熊 (bears): ひき or 頭?. Godzilla is an animal that humans do not have a relationship with, and thus 頭 would be inappropriate. –  Questioner Aug 4 at 11:25
    
he's part horse...? ;) –  user3306356 Aug 5 at 5:01
    
@user3306356 ゴジラって、「ゴリラ+クジラ」で作ったって聞いたことがあります・・・ –  Choko Aug 6 at 6:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 22 down vote accepted

There is certainly a reason for that. In this case, it is for expressing Yamane's (or the human kind's) derogatory feelings toward Godzilla.

The counter 「[頭]{とう}」 simply does not carry that derogatory connotation among us Japanese-speakers; It can only be neutral. In case this is what you are wondering about, the size of Gozilla does not matter as Godzilla is way too large to begin with. The general real-life rule of "匹 for smaller anmimals and 頭 for larger animals" does not apply here.

「[一匹]{いっぴき}」, however, does just the job when used in the right context. With it, you can "say" out loud "little f*****" without actually saying it.

Believe it or not, 匹 can even be used to refer to humans if they are your enemies. In sports, excited fans often use it to refer to the opponents. You will hear people say something like 「さあ, あと一匹だっ!」 at the bottom of the 9th inning with two outs in baseball.

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Also children: うちにはちび・がき・わんぱく坊主が2匹おる –  Brandon Aug 3 at 12:34

Googling the two terms in Japanese, there are a great deal of discussions among the Japanese about when to use which as clearly ambiguous to them as much as it is to you. One of such quoted the definitions from Dictionary of How to Count (『数え方の辞典』) written by Asako Iida (飯田朝子).

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【匹】 ・大型ではない生物全般。 ・小型の哺乳類。 ・小型の爬虫類、両棲類。 ・魚類。

【頭】 ・大型の哺乳類。 ・大型の爬虫類。 ・学術的な希少動物。 ・学術分野でチョウ(英語の数え方の直訳)。 ・人にとって重要、貴重、有益な小動物。(実験動物、カイコなど) ・人が訓練した役に立つ犬。(警察犬、救助犬、盲導犬など) ・まれに大型の鳥類。(ダチョウなど)

【恐竜】 匹、頭、体

小型のものは「匹」、大型のものは「頭」で数えます。骨格標本や模型などは「体」で数えます。

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More or less the definition of "小型の爬虫類、両棲類" for 匹 seems suited for this case. One may say it is an expression of belittlement. But also it can be taken as an expression of endearment by the diminutive expression.

One of the discussions said NHK does not have clear definitions in use of the two terms and neither for average native Japanese speakers. Some says, 頭 is used for any animals large or small in zoology. Some suggested that there is some historical legacy in native speakers count in some unit the way they do (e.g. rabbits counted as 羽 so that Buddhists who was forbidden to eat 4 legged animals can eat it as birds). Some says 匹 is used for hunting, distancing hunters from respecting the games.

All in all, we can read in a lot and try to see meanings behind it. But I am not sure if the authorial intent can be clarified in a clear cut manner here. I, as an average native Japanese speaker, certainly can't.

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This answer is supplementary, but using the counter 匹 for large animals is not so unnatural in daily conversations.

For example, Google returns roughly the same number of results for "2匹の象" and "2頭の象". I haven't checked out each of the results, but it's very unlikely that all those people using 2匹の象 are elephant haters.

If explicitly asked "what is the correct counter for 象 in Japanese?", many people will answer "頭".

But in practice, we often unconsciously use 匹 for all kinds of animals, including elephants, whales or dinosaurs. Basically, don't think using 匹 for huge animals is always ironic or derogatory.

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"2匹の象" の実際のヒット数は、このページ(Page 22 of 219 results)で終わりです。"2頭の象"はここまで(Page 53 of about 129,000 results)表示されます。 –  Choko Aug 4 at 14:54
    
およ。今自分がやってみたら、「2匹の象」は「128 件中 13 ページ目」、「2頭の象」も「263 件中 27 ページ目」と表示されて打ち止めになりました。どっちも幾らなんでもそこまで少ないわけがないので、なんかそれは検索エンジンの都合による別の原因のような気がします。 –  naruto Aug 4 at 15:04
    
えとね、いったん打ち止めになったら、一番下の「In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 128 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.」のところの、you can repeat the search with the omitted results included をクリックしていただければ。もう一回1ページ目からやり直しで、めんどくさいですけどね。。。 –  Choko Aug 4 at 15:06
    
Chokoさんの状況は再現できました。これ「ドラクエ」とか「戦国武将」とかでやっても50~80ページ目辺りで打ち切られちゃうので、「2頭の象」が実際にどこまで出‌​るかは不明ですね。流石に「219対13万」という程の差が実際にあるとは思えないし、個人的には素直に最初に出てくる数で比べてもいいのかなという気も…。(本来はn-g‌​ramとかで調べればいいんだろうけど) –  naruto Aug 4 at 15:26
    
そ~ですね~snailboatさんがつかっていらっしゃる、『少納言』っていうコーパス(?)を使ったらいいかもしれません。(私は、使おうとしたけど、使い方がわから‌​なかった・・・) –  Choko Aug 4 at 15:30

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