4

鯖を読む would be naively translated as "Reading a mackerel". Weblio describes it as metaphorically meaning to misrepresent a number, such as their age.

jisho.org says that as well as meaning "to read", it used to mean "to count":

to count

See also さばを読む, now mostly used in idioms

Should I put this down to verbs not having a one-to-one correspondence in meanings between Japanese and English?

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The primary meaning of the verb 読む in ancient Japanese was to count.

よむ is primarily defined as 数える in 学研全訳古語辞典:

①順に数える。数を数える。
「月よめばいまだ冬なり」
[訳] 月日を数えると、まだ冬である。

And according to 国語教育わたしの主張:

日本最古の歴史物語である古事記(紀元七一二)や風土記では、読むは「数える」という意味であった。

Then it began to mean to say out loud, to chant, because that's what people do when counting things. Then it began to mean to create (a haiku/waka) because a haiku was chanted or "sung". The modern primary meaning of 読む, to read (silently and understand what's written), is relatively new one.

Today, the meaning of to count is only found in a very few idioms such as 鯖を読む. As a native speaker, I of course know the metaphoric meaning of 鯖を読む, but I didn't know what 読む stands for in this idiom. Mackerels (鯖) are fish which are caught in bulk and spoil very quickly, and counting the number of mackerels was not what old people did seriously. That's why 鯖を読む means "presenting a wrong number".

  • Hi naruto, thanks for the answer. Does 鯖を読む only refer to unintentionally miscounting something? Or does it cover intentionally misrepresenting a number (like lying about your age) as well? – jogloran Apr 15 '17 at 22:07
  • 鯖を読む always refers to intentionally presenting a wrong number. For example, saying you are 25 years old while you are actually 30. Failing to count correctly is 数え間違える. – naruto Apr 16 '17 at 1:56

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