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Background: The expression 竜頭蛇尾, which is literally "dragon's head, snake's tail", seems to imply that the front is more impressive than the back. [EDIT] It seems usage is typically time-like, eg an effort began well but fizzled out towards the end. (Dictionary links: goo, jisho) It carries a bit of a sense of anti-climax.

I recently saw the phrase in an English article about a computer game (Overwatch) developed by a non-Japanese company (Blizzard), describing how Blizzard appropriated and misused the Japanese expression (in a non-malicious and silly way). Apparently some Japanese players noticed and have been posting about it. Link to article. But when I mentioned the phrase to one of my friends (a native speaker), they seemed rather confused. Apparently they had never heard the expression before.

Question: What kinds of contexts (written vs spoken, academic-field-specific, geographic location and age of speaker, etc) would this expression come up in?

Secondary/related questions: Roughly, which native speakers would be familiar with this term, and to what degree is it esoteric?

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    中学か高校で、四字熟語として習ったような気が・・・臥薪嘗胆とか羊頭狗肉とかと一緒に。。。 – Chocolate Jun 8 '16 at 9:46
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    You seem slightly misunderstand it. It actually means things go well with momentum at first and end poorly. As for your question, I believe it's one of the most popular kind though you don't commonly use it in daily bases. – user4092 Jun 8 '16 at 10:15
  • You're right, I didn't realize the time-like aspect. Hopefully better now. – WeirdlyCheezy Jun 8 '16 at 10:27
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Context-wise, 竜頭蛇尾 is definitely a written word. We don't use this word very often when speaking (I'd instead use 尻すぼみ, 出オチ, 三日坊主 etc). But it's not a technical jargon or especially learned word, as it's commonly seen in journalistic context.

竜頭蛇尾のサッカー日本 終盤もペースアップ必要
国機関の地方移転 「竜頭蛇尾」にならぬよう

Everyone is supposed to learn this word in the middle school, or perhaps during elementary school if they go to cram school. It could be compared to a word that is contained in vocabulary list to pass SAT in American education. Of course, those who are not particularly interested in Japanese class may forget it after mid-term exam. Or it's possible that some people just can't recall the word from the sound りゅうとうだび.

As an aside, 竜 in 竜頭蛇尾 isn't a symbol of scariness but greatness. It means something looks so great as a dragon in the beginning, but so bumming out as a snake in the end. A standard Eastern dragon is more like snake than lizard, so that the metaphor works. This word is undoubtedly derogatory, especially for artistic works, so used in a video game makes me even feel some sort of satire beyond silliness.

  • I feel like 出オチ is quite different? I think it means climax from the beginning, but doesn't at all imply that the ending is somehow disappointing. So maybe it's not a very good replacement. – kuchitsu Jun 8 '16 at 14:49
  • @kuchitsu It has gradation of nuance. dic.nicovideo.jp/a/%E5%87%BA%E8%90%BD%E3%81%A1 「1. 出だしで面白い内容が出尽くしていること (それ以降に笑いどころが無い) 2. 出だしに笑ってしまう要素があること (それ以降の笑いの有無は問わない) 3. 一発ネタ (短すぎて出た瞬間に全てが終わる)」 weblio.jp/content/%E5%87%BA%E3%82%AA%E3%83%81 「しばしば、最初がクライマックスでありその後は痛々しい雰囲気に陥ることを表す。」 – broccoli forest Jun 8 '16 at 15:34
  • I personally feel this 竜頭蛇尾 was intentionally chosen by someone who was aware of the meaning, expecting some epigram-like effect. After watching the "Dragons" movie, I must say the staffs did a wonderful job mixing the good parts of both traditional and modern Japanese culture. And this 竜頭蛇尾 is aesthetically well written, presumably by a professional. I won't be surprised if I heard a native Japanese person was involved in this work. – naruto Jun 8 '16 at 15:35
  • @naruto I don't think a company like Brizzard didn't do any research before neither, so I'm not quite sure whether it's intentional or not. It could be a deed of native speakers or those have very deep knowledge like South Park authors. But there's also a precedent such as not-so-native Chinese quality in Battlefield 4. – broccoli forest Jun 8 '16 at 15:45
  • @broccoliforest I see, thanks for the clarification. – kuchitsu Jun 8 '16 at 15:58
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“竜頭蛇尾” is a borrowing from Chinese idiom, ”竜頭蛇尾” and “虎頭蛇尾 - A tiger’s head ends up with a snake’s tail,” meaning "begin grandiosely, finish pettily."

「例解日漢成語辞典」edited by 李宗恵 published by 科学技術出版社 (China) gives an example of its usage

做事要善始善終、不可虎頭蛇尾

Whatever you do, you must persevere right to the end. - sic.

It’s exactly same as the way we use the phrase.

Based on 「現代中国語辞典」edited by 香坂順一, published by 光生館, its provenance is found in “元曲選、李達負荊二,” which was compiled in or after the 14 century.

The phrase, “竜頭蛇尾” sounds a bit outdated today, particularly among the youth, but is never uncommon.

As the examples of usage of “竜頭蛇尾,” 「例解日漢成語辞典」 gives the following lines:

始めは天下国家を論じていたが、あとは彼の自慢話で、「竜頭蛇尾」の講演会だった

He was talking about the issues and future of our country and the world in the beginning, but soon started to blow his own trumpet, and ended up with a “Dragon’s head, snail’s tail” lecture

It also gives the example

何事を成すにも終始一貫しておらねばならず、「竜頭蛇尾」はいけない

which has the same meaning as the Chinese quote above.

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