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For example, the following 3:

女っぽい (おんなっぽい)
女らしい (おんならしい)
女みたい (おんなみたい)

In what situations would you use っぽい over らしい? Does っぽい have negative connotations? Are 女らしい and 女みたい interchangeable as in 彼女は本当に女らしい/彼女は本当に女みたい?

I would love if someone could contrast these 3 terms.

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As Derek points out in a comment to Lukman's answer, らしい and っぽい are ambiguous. The meaning depends on what structure you have in mind. Lukman's and Dave's answers seem to be describing the different structures. –  sawa Aug 2 '11 at 15:34
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4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

As the above answers/comments show, you can divide usage of らしい, みたい and っぽい into two rough categories: ending and thereby modifying entire sentences, or attached to something within the sentence (usually a noun phrase) to create an adjectival phrase. In the below examples, the first of each set is at the end of an entire sentence (Z は女 ○), and the second is modifying just a noun (女 ○).

  • Z は女らしい = It seems/I hear that Z is a woman
  • 女らしい Z = (a) womanly Z

  • Z は女っぽい = It seems/I understand that Z is a woman

  • 女っぽい Z = (a) womanly Z

  • Z は女みたいだ = It seems/It looks like Z is a woman

  • 女みたいな Z = (a) Z like a woman

There is some overlap, which can be confusing:

  • Zは女らしい(よ) = It seems/I hear that Z is a woman.
  • Zは女らしい(人) = Z is womanly (a womanly person).

... but usually context will make one interpretation much more likely than the other.

The sentence-ending usages indicate that you are deducing what you say from something you saw, heard, etc. You are not in a position to make a definitive statement. The modifier usages are more about making judgment, and ARE in many cases definitive statements.

  • Modifier Xらしい roughly means "fulfilling with ease the requirements for X", with a nuance of appropriateness or approval.
  • Modifier Xっぽい roughly means "strongly evidences the characteristics associated with X", with a nuance of inappropriateness or disapproval.
  • Modifier みたい comes originally from 見たよう and it simply means "appears to be, looks like, acts like, seems like". It does not require that the information be obtained visually, though: 赤ちゃんみたいな鳴き声, etc. X みたいな Y carries the implication that Y is not in the category of X.

Thus:

  • 女らしい would usually be applied to women, who are expected to be womanly, and 女っぽい to men, who are not, or to women who the speaker judges to be acting in a too stereotypically "womanly" way. (And both the "praise" and "blame" nuances can be used ironically, too... but this is a bit of a rabbit hole.)
  • 彼女は女みたいだ is basically an inappropriate thing to say, because if you are calling her 彼女 you know that she is in the category of 女 -- you are essentially denying that she IS a woman, and simply saying that she looks/acts like one. This sort of sentence is used, though, as a sort of mock-insult among friends (for example, you might say 女みたい to a friend who is acting/dressed in a way you deem womanly even though she normally does/is not), but it can obviously backfire very easily.

Note: There is probably room for disagreement over how distinct these sentence-ending and modifier usages really are. For らしい at least, the "hearsay" and "appropriately" meanings are pretty distinct. For the others, you could maybe argue that both usages are fundamentally the same, with any perceived difference in meaning arising from context/function in the sentence rather than inherent semantic differences.

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Regarding っぽい, I don't think this ending alone has a nuance of inappropriateness or disapproval; it depends on context. っぽい can be used in neutral situations when the thing described has a moderate degree of some quality (good or bad). –  Derek Schaab Aug 3 '11 at 12:54
    
Yes, I think you are right. I overemphasized the contrast there. I'll try to think of a a good rephrasing. –  Matt Aug 3 '11 at 22:44
    
@Matt good answer but your initial translation shows らしい + っぽい as identical, which is usually not the case. As read from a beginner's perspective I don't think the answer sufficiently disambiguates them. っぽい often has a strong connotation of trying too hard, or trying to be seen a particular way. IMO for practical disambiguation purposes Axioplase's answer is more useful. I'm adding this comment to flag this bc your answer has come up on top (well done) and we know people usually only read the top answer :p –  crunchyt Aug 6 '11 at 0:22
    
Yah, fair enough. I also think as a straight-up answer to the question asked, Axioplase's answer is better. Thanks for the helpful comment! –  Matt Aug 6 '11 at 0:47
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女っぽい (おんなっぽい)

"Womanish". The same nuance you have in English with "childish", maybe a bit derogatory. With make-up, high heels or a cell-phone with a hundredth of key-holders linked to it… Has quite a lot to do with looks.

女らしい (おんならしい)

"Feminin". There are two らしい, and we're definitely not discussing the hearsay here. Therefore, this 女らしい means "as expected from a woman." It's less derogatory, and may even be positive or a compliment. A show on morning TV would sell you a nice bra+belt set to get big breast and a flat belly, so as to look "女らしい". It's quite about the ideal of a woman.

女みたい (おんなみたい)

"like a woman, but not one!" I don't think there is any judgement here, unlike っぽい. Your gay/emo friend may be 女みたい by the way he speaks, dresses or takes time to make-up. Or your boss doing an impersonation of his wife scolding him. You just say that yes, it makes you think of a woman, any.

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From what I have learned, らしい denotes third-party information (i.e. you got the information from someone else) while みたい denotes first-party information. So 女らしい would mean that you heard from someone (or even rumor) that she's a female, and 女みたい would mean that it is your conjecture based on your observation (looking at her, hearing her voice etc).

I'm not that familiar with っぽい, but my guts feeling says it's similar to みたい such that it's your own conjecture but you base it on general characteristic for female. Meaning you would say 女っぽい if you see her behaving like a female. But again, I'm not entirely sure.

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Don't forget that らしい has the additional meaning of "embodying the typical or proper characteristics of", and I think that's what's meant here. 女らしい = womanly; 男らしい = manly; 女の子らしい = girlish. With っぽい, you're on mostly the right track. The English "-ish" often conveys the same meaning, even if it doesn't fit with every word. オレンジっぽい = orange-ish; 大人っぽい = adult-like; 夏っぽい = with a summer-y feeling. –  Derek Schaab Aug 2 '11 at 15:25
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My understanding of the difference is this:

らしい is pretty simple, as it's hearsay, so it means you are basing your perception on someone else's information. For that reason it's not really interchangeable with the others.

みたい is something that resembles or looks like something else, but is not necessarily that thing. So when you observe a woman acting like a man, you could say 「男みたい」【おとこみたい】.

っぽい is for something that is that thing that it is resembling. A woman who is acting in a way you think is typical of how a woman acts would be 女っぽい【おんなっぽい】.

I think っぽい and みたい could be interchangeable when saying a woman was in some way acting like a woman.

But you could not say a woman was 男っぽい.

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I'd like to add a qualifying comment in that I've used these words these ways for years, but I worry that it might be a situation where Japanese people let me get away with it because I'm close enough. If I'm ultimately not accurate, I hope someone will correct me! –  Dave M G Aug 2 '11 at 15:29
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I might be missing something, but I'm not sure why you could not say of a woman that she is 男っぽい (the same way you could say of a man that he is 女っぽい). I'm pretty sure you can... in such case the connotation is rather derogatory. –  Dave Aug 3 '11 at 0:22
    
@Dave: I think Matt's answer might be more accurate than mine, in which case you're right that it's probably the case that it's not a strict rule that you could not say a woman was 男っぽい. It's just that it denotes expectation (a woman is not expected to be described as manly), and therefor it can be exploited for emphasis and effect. I think my usage has up to now has lacked a lot of the subtleties of the terms, so this is good learning for me! –  Dave M G Aug 3 '11 at 1:25
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