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Each of 始末 and 負う has several meanings. What meanings do they have in 始末に負えない? And what usage of に is being applied here?

2

Thinking of all the senses that are possible for each of the individual terms is likely leading to a mish-mash of confusing ideas.

Considering the meaning of the total phrase, we can work backwards to figure out which meanings must be relevant for the pieces.

  • 始末【しまつ】に負【お】えない
    "impossible to handle, can't manage"

From this phrasal meaning, I look up each of the parts in my local copy of the Shin Wa-Ei Chū-Jiten. Here are the fitting senses:

  • 始末【しまつ】: "an end to something: settlement, dealing with, putting in order"
  • に: indicating direction of action: "to"
  • 負【お】えない: negative potential form of verb 負【お】う, "to bear or shoulder a burden, to take responsibility for something"

Literally, and horribly clunkily, 始末に負えない could parse out in English to something like "cannot bear [something] to its settlement".

More colloquially, we might say "cannot carry [something] through [to its conclusion]".

Even more simply, we might say "cannot carry it through". Depending on the phrasing, we could change this to describe the thing (rather than the abilities of the person) as "not manageable, not feasible".

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  • 1
    It’s interesting to note that its synonym 手に負えない has a very similar structure but this に seems to have a different function from the one you attribute to the particle in 始末に負えない. Do you see any possibility that the phrase started as a misuse of 手に負えない and 始末に困る or something?
    – aguijonazo
    Oct 1 at 5:22
  • @aguijonazo – I don't see the に as too far apart between 始末に負えない and 手に負えない. For the latter, I think that's translatable as (and not that far from) English expresssion "cannot get something in hand", where "in hand" means "in control, handled". いかがでしょうか。 Oct 1 at 20:49
  • I see the に in 手に負えない the same way I do the に in 手に持つ or, to use the same verb (in a more literal sense), 背に負う. You hold or bear something in or on the indicated part of the body (essentially “place”). I find it hard to explain 始末に負えない by this function of に.
    – aguijonazo
    Oct 1 at 22:39

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