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(Warning: potentially offensive words. Proceed at your own risk. Also, apologies for the length.)

I realize this risks opening up the "does Japanese actually have swear words" debate, touched on here, and a little here too.

After exploring the issue in those other questions, I'm content that there are some words that are definitely always vulgar swear words in Japanese (no need to repeat them here), and some words that are merely verbal jabs.

However, there is one word that is still hard to nail down: 野郎{やろう}. It seems to cover such a wide range that I just have a hard time accepting most translations.

I was reminded of the topic when, walking through Ebisu today, I looked up and noticed this sign for a mahjong parlour:

mahjon yarou

(It's a little blurry, so just to be clear, the place is called 麻雀{マージャン}野郎{やろう}.)

Let's say this store expanded to become an international mahjong chain of stores, and they wanted an English version of their name. What would we translate it to?

According to Space ALC, 野郎{やろう} means bloke, dude, fellow, and son of a gun. Very inoffensive.

But, in that same entry, it also means the mildly offensive beggar, bugger (some might think this is worse), and hoser.

On top of that, it also means the definitely offensive mofo, asshole, and son of a bitch.

And, even further, it also means the inexplicable cuss (isn't that a verb?), gazebo (isn't that a kind of patio?), gazabo (what?), gink (huh?), and hooer (a what-er?).

Putting aside the bizarre words, we have a range that goes from dude to asshole. That's a hell of a wide range.

Clearly, the sign would lean toward the milder, so maybe we'd translate it as "Mahjong Dude". But if that's true, then I have a hard time believing it could mean the stronger terms. After all, this sign stands on it's own, so why not translate it as "Mahjong Asshole"?

I get the fact that words in languages can have a wide range. "Aloha", in Hawaiian, apparently means both hello and goodbye.

But part of the reason I have a hard time accepting the vagueness of this particular potentially offensive word is that, as Japanese learners, we're beaten over the head with the notion that the Japanese hold politeness in high regard so that they are sensitive to the slightest mishaps. Not saying さん after someone's name in a certain situation, or perhaps addressing someone with あなた, would cause offense.

And yet at the same time, we can have a word that goes from dude to asshole and everyone's cool with that?

"Aloha" might mean contrary things, but none of its meanings are potentially offensive, so I can see why it wasn't forced into one particular meaning. But I can't see how a word with high risk of insult survives in a culture that otherwise seems quite rigid about how to avoid offense.

Something doesn't add up in this word, and I suspect it has to do with a great deal of license on the part of most translations. Real offensiveness comes from the words surrounding 野郎{やろう}, not 野郎{やろう} itself.

So... after all that preamble:

What would the most accurate translation of the sign be?

If my idea that the words around 野郎{やろう} are what really manipulate it's offensiveness level, then let's zero in on what exactly the naked word means and what it, and it alone, conveys in offensiveness.

Or show me where and how everything I'm saying is just totally wrong and I'm just being a 馬鹿{ばか}野郎{やろう}.

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Do you mind grouping the pieces into less paragraphs? That way even if it's long it'll be easier to read it. Many "one-line" or small paragraphs are more difficult to go through. –  Alenanno Oct 13 '11 at 15:06
@Alenanno: Thanks for your suggestion, but I disagree completely. Huge blocks of text are unwelcoming. This is the style I prefer. –  Dave M G Oct 14 '11 at 3:34
@Troyen: Furigana italics removed. –  Dave M G Oct 14 '11 at 3:35
Well, they don't have to be huge, just regrouped differently. This way it looks like a list and it's more difficult to go through it. Now that I know you're against it, I won't edit it, but I had to tell you. :) –  Alenanno Oct 14 '11 at 8:25
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Perhaps you are assuming that 野郎 has a wide variery of levels of politeness, and that they are continuous, but they are not. Probably, 野郎 is not used in isolation as an insult word. When it is an insult word, it is used in one of the few fixed expressions like この野郎 and 馬鹿野郎.

Also, when used in isolation, a meaning of an insult word or a counterpart of (American) English guy can be conveyed with different accents. In the insult usage, the accent is on the second mora ('yaROu'), whereas the guy-usage does not have the accent nucleus, so it takes the default flat accent (平板{へいばん}アクセント) 'yaROU'. This may indicate that they have actually become different words.

I remember commenting on someone's question/answer previously that an expression like a guy and a girl is discriminative and it should be replaced with a boy and a girl because guy does not have the same polite level as girl. Rather, it connotates some roughness, and using that kind of word only for males is sexual discrimination. 野郎 is the Japanese counterpart to this word. It connotates some roughness, and is used usually only for males. Often 野郎 is used as opposed to 女の子, which is as sexually discriminative as the (American) English counterpart a guy and a girl, but many people do not seem to care.

Since there are only two meanings, which meaning is intended should be clear enough from the context. The insult usage does not have many variations: この野郎, 馬鹿野郎, and perhaps a few more.

The 'guy'-usage is pretty much productive; it works as an affix. A slight departure of the meaning of 野郎 from that of guy may be that the former also connotates some kind of nerdiness when used as an affix. 麻雀野郎 would mean 'Mahjong guy', but it may also be close to something like 'Mahjong nerd'. So the intention of using it as a shop name is to give the image of "a Mahjong nerd's gathering place". There are common expressions like トラック野郎 'truck guy', which means long distance truck drivers who spend most of their time on a (often extremely decorated) truck.

There are other insult words that have come to mean something similar when used as an affix. For example, 馬鹿 'stupid', when used as an affix, means 'geek': 釣{つ}り馬鹿{ばか} 'fishing geek'. The same applies for another word きちがい, but use of this word should be avoided regardless of its usage because of the reasons mentioned in one of the links given in this question.

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I have absolutely no clue where you got the idea that "guy" could be considered sexual discrimination. This is absolutely not the case in English, at least not in Australian English. Also, "guys" can also refer to a group of people, of mixed genders. It is a very common greeting, "hey guys!". This does not indicate "only males". –  phirru Oct 13 '11 at 16:53
I've heard the use described by @phirru as well. (I'm not a native speaker.) –  Alenanno Oct 13 '11 at 20:51
@phirru That is often true in American English as well, but some people do interpret "guy" as "male only" and will take offense at it. So if you want to be politically correct, don't lump them together. However, many people (most?) won't care. –  Troyen Oct 13 '11 at 22:27
I think that nowadays, a lot of people consider "guy" to be just as polite as "girl" in many situations (including 'a guy and a girl'). It's certainly lost much of its connotation of roughness. In contrast, I would argue that in many contexts, 'boy' carries a stronger connotation of childishness than 'girl'. I feel that although the evolution of these words is due to discrimination, much of their common usage is neutral. As a native speaker of American English, I feel like there are exceptions (mostly older speakers), but that this generally holds true. –  Nathan Ellenfield Oct 14 '11 at 3:36
Regardless, I think that by using that comparison, you illustrate your point very well. –  Nathan Ellenfield Oct 14 '11 at 3:58
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In my opinion 野郎 (やろう) is just a pun meaning "let's play (mahjong)"

Verb やる as in fight/play/do

Additionally, 野郎 (just like baka) as an insult is written in katakana.

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I did not notice the pun, thanks for pointing it out! Also, interesting observation that katakana use may make a difference. However, I'm still a little lost on where, exactly, 野郎 falls on a scale of acceptability/offense. –  Dave M G Oct 24 '11 at 3:01
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