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For over a decade of speaking (poorly) and listening to Japanese, it seems to me that I have almost exclusively heard the word えらい in the sense of meaning "admirable".

For example, I'd mention volunteering in Tohoku, and someone might say えらいね to say "hey, good on you," or something like that. I swear this kind of use of えらい was the only one I was aware of for years.

Then, recently, I'm reading Tintin and I come across this panel:

Tintin saying えらい

Tintin: えらいときに 来あわせちゃった ([I] happened to arrive at a really bad time!)

The context is that he's just arrived in a town where there is a war brewing between some local factions, and people are being conscripted for the army. Tintin fears getting forced into service. A bad time to show up indeed.

That use of えらい didn't match my expectations, so I looked it up in a dictionary, and to my surprise, えらい does indeed mean "terrible", as well as "admirable" and "excellent".

So... questions abound:

Is this use of えらい rare or limited in some way so that the usage that I am familiar is the dominant use? Or is it me who just happens to not have been exposed to the whole spectrum of meanings?

It seems from the dictionary that when used in the positive light there are two kanji, 偉い and 豪い. I'm guessing the second kanji is more rare, but is there a difference in use or meaning?

Lastly, if the sentence 「えらいときに来あわせちゃった」 were taken out of context and presented completely on its own, is there any way of knowing whether the positive or negative meaning of えらい was intended?

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    This is hardly limited to Japanese, viz. "terrific" and "awesome". – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Aug 26 '11 at 6:48
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    I think it's easier to reconcile if instead of thinking of えらい as just "admirable", you instead see it as a sort of "you are commendable! [in the face of adversity]" (implying that the person is admirable because the conditions are terrible)... which is the way I've always heard it before. – Dave Aug 26 '11 at 7:14
  • <jisho.org/…> Can study for えらい. – ZarNge Aug 26 '11 at 7:33
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    "Terrific" and "awesome" are only exclusively positive in colloquial speech. You will occasionally come across them with their original meanings in sober writing in some contexts and much more commonly in older material, even the age of Tintin. – hippietrail Aug 27 '11 at 5:40
  • @Dave: I think it's for Ignacio and yourself who already brought it up and anybody else reading this question and making similar comparisons. You can't compare Japanese usage to English usage without saying anything about the English usage. – hippietrail Aug 27 '11 at 5:53
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Or is it me who just happens to not have been exposed to the whole spectrum of meanings?

This is the good answer I think. It's quite common, and as far as I'm concerned, I think I learnt the "terrible" meaning first :)

偉い and 豪い.

A quick look at compound words with the first kanji give: excellent deed, magnificent, great man… and the second: flood devastation, luxurious, wealthy family, tremendous snowfall…

It seems that the first kanji has only positive compounds (at least, when in first position), and I have encountered it very often. I have never seen the second one alone, always in compound words.

Lastly, if the sentence 「えらいときに来あわせちゃった」 were taken out of context and presented completely on its own, is there any way of knowing whether the positive or negative meaning of えらい was intended?

Negative, definitely. Look: "ちゃった" says it all. I guess that えらい is a bit like the English pair "terrible/terrific" which in French happens to be a single word too "terrible". It can be ambiguous, but in sentences like "えらい失礼をし(ちゃっ)た", it's crystal clear…

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1) The "negative usage" you mention is Kansai dialect. That is why you did not see it. It does not actually mean negative thing by itself. It means 'huge' or 'very', and the negative part is usually implied or is omitted. It is interchangable with 大変(な).

えらいことしてもうた
'I caused a huge issue'.

えらいすんません。
'I am very sorry'.

2) 偉い is normal. I haven't seen the other kanji used in ordinary life.

3) The positive meaning you were falimiar with is predicated of an animate thing. The "negative meaning", or the 'very' meaning is predicated of things like events, times, situations. In えらいとき, とき is clearly the latter, so you can tell it is the negative sense.

  • "してもうた" sorry, I'm not familiar with this, is it possibly a typo and supposed to be して持った? – Claytonian Aug 26 '11 at 9:39
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    @Claytonian: It's the Kansai analogue of しちゃった. – Zhen Lin Aug 26 '11 at 10:35
  • The negative usage is NOT dialectal, it is part of standard Japanese. There are however dialectal variations of this word, but is relatively widespread throughout the country. For example in Hakata and Saga dialects it simply means とても and is relatively neutral. See here: nihonjiten.com/search/… – bjorn May 24 '18 at 9:34
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This usage of えらい has always struck me to be kind of ironic or sarcastic. Not so much like the change in meaning of "awesome" or "terrific", but more like "Oh, it looks like I came at a great time - I'm in for it now!" As such, I think there would be loads of examples where it would be impossible to know, without context, whether the meaning is positive or negative.

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Instead of literal translation try for an equivocal/equasive translation.

Erai, I would equate to the English "god damn," or "goddamned."

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