First question ever here. :D

So, I hear a lot in media, when someone is fired from a job, normally they refer to 首 as being fired, or firing someone, and might sometimes make the gesture of getting their head cut off with their hands.

What is the etymology behind that? I am not super familiar with history, but was it that if you were discharged from your position it'd be done by a beheading? Or what is the background for why 首 as "head" or "neck" came to also mean "dismissal from a job or post"?

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    I always thought of it along the line of "getting axed". I'm not sure that that English expression for getting fired was ever meant to be taken literally.
    – A.Ellett
    Jun 30, 2017 at 18:43
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    Exactly. It's definitely a metaphor from the idea of decapitation, but that doesn't imply they were ever actually killed, and as far as I know, they weren't; no more than Englishmen were fired from cannons. Jun 30, 2017 at 18:47
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    @psosuna Well certainly in mediaeval times, whether in Europe or Japan, you could literal risk losing your head for voicing unpopular views, being insubordinate, or just failing to accomplish what your lord required you to do. But, I doubt that those practices actually gave rise to these idioms.
    – A.Ellett
    Jun 30, 2017 at 20:33
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    The colloquialism "クビ/首" may be a reduced form of (but is certainly related to) "首が飛ぶ". (And "クビ/首になる" could be a yet later development in the evolution.) In English they will roll instead of going flying/leaping, but I take the two expressions as describing, in their literal terms, different stages of the same process.
    – goldbrick
    Jul 1, 2017 at 5:52
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    @JoelRees To be "fired" from your job, said to be 'a play on the two meanings of discharge (v.): "to dismiss from a position," and "to fire a gun," influenced by the earlier general sense "throw (someone) out" of some place (1871).' Jul 1, 2017 at 11:15

2 Answers 2


It bears noting that this kind of expression is not limited to Japanese. Have you never heard the phrase "heads will roll" in English, in reference to people likely to lose their jobs due to some scandal or other? It is not a far stretch to make the analogy of losing one's head for losing one's livelihood.

Additional detail

Shogakukan's 国語大辞典 and the Daijirin dictionary both give similar sense details. From Shogakukan:

5 (首を切られるの意から) ①関係が断たれること。縁が切れること。*洒・青楼真廓誌‐二「とてもこんどはおさまらねへ此ものまへは首だろう」②職を失うこと。失職。「くびになる」

Daijirin's is visible here as sense 6, giving essentially the same information.

Both dictionary entries essentially trace the meaning from "to lose one's head" to "to lose one's livelihood".

  • I have and am familiar with the term in English, but understanding the etymology of an expression from a language and culture far removed from the western perspective using western etymologies doesn't quite answer my question... I'm not seeking to understand the phrase but rather why it came to be that way, specifically in the context of the Japanese language :)
    – psosuna
    Jul 6, 2017 at 20:48
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    @psosuna: The "analogy" sentence in my post above is in reference to the etymology. Various dictionaries back this up; I will edit soon to expand on this. Jul 6, 2017 at 21:57

Surely you've heard the stories of Samurai testing their swords? Do you think they are urban legends?


Read the Japanese page on that after you read the English.

Don't read it before or after lunch, I suppose.


Since Chocolate asks, I'll unpack that a bit.

(I assume you aren't asking if beheading has been used in the corporate environment in Japan, other than by, for instance, organized crime, and if you want some cultural reference on use by organized crime, consider the movie "Black Rain", not the one about Hiroshima after the bomb, but the thriller starring Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Ken Takakura, et. al.)

I was looking around for proof of this, haven't found any yet, but my wife tells me of the tradition that many castles were built by slaves who were afterward buried, sometimes alive, sometimes being killed first, she has said, around the castle.

She also tells me of Samurai who made somewhat more use than seems reasonable of the privilege of testing their swords on the persons of commoners, usually commoners who displeased them. I have read that such privilege was not without consequence, but it apparently did happen. I don't have that reference to hand, either.

There is a small shrine near where I live that commemorates the commoners whose lives were sacrificed in the building of a castle which was built near the shrine. Now there are just a few bits of a corner wall on a small partially-protected plot of land (about thirty by forty meters) and bits of walls and pottery and such that are unearthed during construction in an area roughly a square kilometer around the shrine.

I have some better evidence of this, but many allied prisoners were beheaded by the Japanese. See this wikipedia article:


If I get a chance to read the marker on that shrine today, I'll see if it says anything specific enough to be used as a reference.

(end afterthought)

(2nd afterthought)

Random related words from dictionary.goo.jp:

首賭(け) putting one's neck on the line

Wait. I don't have time to just run through all the くび I find in the dictionary, so I'll suggest that you search via google for this phrase:

「くび goo」

and you'll get a lot of dictionary stuff about くび。

(Google and Goo.ne.jp are not, as far as I know, related entities.)

Kotobank and other such sites are also useful.

(end 2nd afterthought)

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    – chocolate
    Jul 1, 2017 at 5:46
  • なぜかコメントにすると思ったが回答にしてしまった。コメントのままのほうが良かったかも知りません。語源的な関係を示すのは難しそう。でも、歴史そのものは現在の表現に関係がないと思うこともないでしょう。 (Got me scratching my head on this one.)
    – Joel Rees
    Jul 1, 2017 at 6:06
  • I've read through the material you've provided, but I'm not seeing the direct 1:1 correlation between 試し切り and 首 other than the sense that 試し切り could have been performed on convicts. Following that thread one would make the assumption that becoming discharged from a job is equal to committing a crime. Would that be the etymology behind 首?
    – psosuna
    Jul 6, 2017 at 20:54
  • Well, from having worked in several small Japanese companies, I know from personal experience that some Japanese people consider changing jobs for any reason to be a crime. 8-( More to the point, until very recently, firing a worker very nearly required being able to prove the worker had committed a crime, or at least had done something that had seriously harmed the company in general. But this is one of those forest-for-the-trees things. If you see it, it's a little too obvious to explain easily. For most Japanese workers, the company is bigger than life, bigger than God.
    – Joel Rees
    Jul 7, 2017 at 3:51

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