I saw on a board the other day someone referring to insecticide as "薬", which doesn't really fit with the English conception of "medicine". I looked up "薬" in Kenkyuusha, and sure enough, "chemical" was listed as a meaning (along with "enamel", which is just weird if you ask me, but anyway . . .). My question is, how broadly does the "chemical" sense apply in normal usage? For example, would an adhesive,a cleanser, or a solvent be classed as "薬"? Additionally, are there other senses which might surprise an English speaker?

  • I'd say the 'chemical' sense is a lot more central to 薬 than 'medicine'... In fact, the 'medicine' meaning you are referring to would more accurately be [chemical] 'pharmaceuticals' (I don't think natural remedies would be formally called 薬). 薬学 is 'pharmaceutics'... In addition to istraci's examples, a common one is also 薬物: [legal or illegal] drugs.
    – Dave
    Aug 26 '11 at 1:50
  • Thanks for this, Dave. "Pharmaceuticals" is an excellent fit, I think. However, 薬 clearly covers a wider scope than this; that's what I'm curious about. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "natural remedies", though. For example, 「のどが痛いとき、蜂蜜はいい薬だ。」 seems OK to me. Is that the sort of thing you mean?
    – rdb
    Aug 26 '11 at 2:28
  • btw is there an online version of kenkyuusha, or you mean you had a hard copy?
    – Pacerier
    Aug 30 '11 at 18:29
  • It's in my electronic dictionary. I don't know if there's an online version. I doubt it, but you can search if you like: 研究社 新和英大辞典.
    – rdb
    Aug 31 '11 at 7:07

If you pronounce it くすり, then it basically exclusively refers to something that will have a positive effect on living beings (primarily therapeutic but also in a more lax manner). In a strict sense くすり will be material, but it can also be used as a metaphor:
Note: I wrote くすり for illustrative purpose, but normally it is written as 薬.

 このくすりを呑みなさい (therapeutic)
 スパイスはくすりにもなるのでたくさん食べましょう ("good for your body")
 歩道でスケートボードしてて骨折か。まぁ、いいくすりになったんじゃないの? (metaphoric)
 水槽にくすりを入れてあげなさい (to non-humans)

Metaphorically, it can be applied to non-living things as well, but it must have an positive effect: 日本経済に処方するくすりとなるか?

When it's pronounced やく, it's basically exclusively used in conjunction with other kanji, as in 薬品、爆薬、薬量、薬価 etc. etc. Here it can more broadly refer to chemicals. If you are a chemist, a cleaner may well be a 薬品. If you are a layperson, to call an ordinal cleaner "薬品" sounds a bit odd. If it's some kind of an potent, special cleaning agent or something, then ppl use 薬品. I guess that's similar to English.

You might hear the word "ヤク", which I believe comes from 薬. This is exclusively a slang for entertaining drugs (basically illegal drugs).

  • Thank you, Mr. Shioji. All that makes a good deal of sense (Although I still don't get the "enamel" thing. 笑) One more point, just to be sure I'm clear on this, though. In answer to 「日本経済に処方するくすりとなるか?」 would it sound odd to say 「いいえ、悪い薬になるはずだよ。」?
    – rdb
    Aug 26 '11 at 2:52
  • @rdb: 薬(くすり) has this inherent implication that it will have a positive effect, so it would sound odd (oxymoron). You could say "いや、毒になるはずだよ" because 毒 (どく, toxins) is usually considered the opposite of 薬(くすり). Aug 26 '11 at 3:38
  • Thank you very much for these thorough explanations. Very kind of you.
    – rdb
    Aug 26 '11 at 4:54
  • [[ 薬(くすり) has this inherent implication that it will have a positive effect ]] -- I've heard くすり often used as "illegal drugs" though (like くすりを使う人), so I don't think it's always positive.
    – istrasci
    Aug 26 '11 at 5:50
  • @istrasci: That'll be "クスリ". I.e. a slangy use and an exception IMO. Aug 26 '11 at 6:14

Additionally, are there other senses which might surprise an English speaker?

I was surprised at how it is used in relation to explosives:

  • 火薬【かやく】 → Gunpowder
  • 弾薬【だんやく】→ Ammunition
  • 爆薬【ばくやく】→ Explosive
  • Thanks for these. However, however, would these all be considered 薬? Gunpowder I could see, an explosive compound too, but ammunition in a generic sense I'm not too sure about.
    – rdb
    Aug 26 '11 at 1:13

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