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I know that 癖 means "habit", most likely a bad one, for example the habit to bite nails:

爪を噛{か}む癖のある人

But what I am wondering about is whether 癖がある by itself also necessarily has a bad meaning or connotation (when said about people): my dictionary gives a translation "quirky", which I would say is more of a positive thing. But in Japanese I find descriptions like 性格がきつい, which to me again is somewhat ambiguous (is it regarded positive or negative, 50/50 etc.).

Does this expression 癖のある~ always carry a somewhat negative tone, or would the meaning tend more towards the English "quirky"? Thanks in advance.

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When we say (Xは)癖がある or 癖が/のあるX without specifying what sort of 癖 it is that X has, the word 癖 often refers to a distinctive or peculiar quality of some kind, rather than a particular behavioral pattern.

We may speak of 癖のある味("a distinctive taste (of food)"), 一癖も二癖もある人("a person with a peculiar quality or two") or say things like あの人は癖が強い, with the implication that things/people described as such have distinctive qualities that make people love or hate them (or at least make some people cautious in dealing with them). So I'd say 癖がある has an ambivalent connotation, but maybe a bit more negative than positive.

性格がきつい means something different and more specific, namely that someone has an acerbic or abrasive disposition, and I suppose it's usually used in a somewhat negative way.

  • 1
    There is a similar word くせもの (曲者 or 癖者) which has several meanings: a suspicious, quirky, or strange person. – miqi Mar 14 '17 at 17:58
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癖のある would be more towards "quirky" in English. The expression 癖のある by itself has no significant tone of being positive or negative.

Less quirk than quirky

The word "quirk" seems to carry other meanings beyond its adjective "quirky" according to Collins English Dictionary. American English (not quoted) has similar meanings but takes different orders of priority compared to British English (quoted below).

English: quirk

  1. an individual pecularity of character; (○ 癖のある)

  2. an unexpected twist or turn; (✕ 癖のある)

  3. a continuous groove in an architectural moulding; (✕ 癖のある)

  4. a flourish, as in handwriting; (△ 癖のある)

I have added notes in the brackets to describe compatibility of the expression against each meaning, such that ○ 癖のある: commonly used; △ 癖のある: sometimes used; ✕ 癖のある: not used or not found.

Positive, negative, neither

Does the expression have positive or negative connotation? This thread on Yomiuri Online had asked a very similar question to that: what kind of person is described as 癖のある, or what does 癖のある人 mean literally.

癖のある人って具体的に言うと、どういう人なのでしょうか?

And the earliest answer contributed by 秋の温泉 dated 2011年10月21日 11:56 had replied as following (partially quoted).

色んなニュアンスをこめられる言い方だと思いますが、私は以下のように解釈しています。

・悪い人ではない。しかし、誰もがいい人と思うような代表的長所(温和、優しい、人当たりがいいなど)が当てはまる人ではない。 [...]

The relevant point translates to "Not a bad person. However, the person is neither good, of which anyone would describe as being a fine exemplary of virtue (moderate, kind, good manner, etc.)". So it could be positive or negative, but it's neither to begin with.

Perfect example (added 2017.03.16)

The following sentences make use of the expression 癖のある and put the expression in different tones to make sense in this answer.

(1) 時{とき}に、マイナス点{てん}を一票{いっぴょう}いれていながらコメントをのこさない癖のあるユーザーに困ってしまう。

(1) Sometimes, I would be bothered by quirky user who don't leave any comment while a downvote has been made.

In the first sentence, 癖のある would be translated as "quirky" to describe the peculiar behaviour of user. This expression by itself doesn't mean positive or negative. It is neither. The following sentence changes the expression into a different tone.

(2) マイナス点{てん}を一票{いっぴょう}いれるのはユーザーの権利{けんり}であるが、コメント無{な}しでは修正{しゅうせい}の手{て}がかりも無{な}いため、悪{わる}い癖のあるユーザーとも言{い}える。

(2) It is a user's privilege to cast a downvote however, given that comment was not available, there is no clue to make revision thus, the user is also said to have a bad habit.

In the second sentence, 癖のある is translated as "have a habit" due to the expression is preceded by the adjective 悪い "bad". When combined into a single expression, 悪い癖のある is now translated as "have a bad habit". As a result, this expression has a negative tone.

Therefore, depending on how the expression is used in a sentence, the tone can be positive, negative, or neither.

  • Due to one downvote without comment, I will make use of "this quirky response" as better example to improve this answer. Perfect pun. – clearkimura Mar 16 '17 at 13:05

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