I just came across the phrase

What a nerve! (my translation)

in a book translated from English to Japanese. Because it's a translation I'm a little doubtful about whether it's correct/idiomatic.

I can think of three meanings of nerve in English:

  1. The biological thingy;
  2. The courage to do something;
  3. The audacity to do something.

The context of the book means that meaning 3) must be intended. Yet when I look in weblio and kotobank I see nothing that looks like either meaning 2) or 3).

To what extent does 神経 mirror the English meanings?

  • "What a nerve!" does not make sense in English.
    – istrasci
    Dec 27, 2022 at 3:52
  • 1
    @istrasci As a life-long native English speaker of over 40 years, your comment puzzles me greatly. Dec 27, 2022 at 9:41
  • @user3856370 You don't think "what nerve?" sounds right for the "audacity" meaning? It would sound weird with the "a" for that meaning. I guess a neurologist might say "what a nerve!" if they were impressed with a physical nerve, but that is a pretty specific scenario to imagine.
    – Leebo
    Dec 27, 2022 at 9:52
  • Googling it, I guess it exists. Still sounds very strange to me.
    – Leebo
    Dec 27, 2022 at 9:54
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    @istrasci In the US maybe that is the case. In the UK (where I'm from) "What A nerve" is perfectly normal, as I verified today with several friends and the internet. If you don't like it, that's fine. But please don't tell me I sound like a non-native. It is simply not true. Dec 27, 2022 at 22:55

2 Answers 2


神経 can appear naturally in non-translated conversations. In a sentence like this, it refers to someone's common-sense judgment. どういう神経だ (or どんな神経をしているんだ) may be said after someone said or did something based on an insane judgement. Courage or audacity is not necessarily relevant, so its meaning may be broader than "What a nerve!" in English. But 神経が図太い is an idiom that means "to have strong nerves" or "fearless", so what it actually refers to depends on the phrase.

  • So, if someone drunkenly kicks a wall and hurts their foot, would どんな神経 be appropriate? It seems to fit your definition of "may be said after someone said or did something based on an insane judgement". Just trying to get a feel for how widely applicable it is. Thanks. Dec 27, 2022 at 10:10
  • 1
    @user3856370 どんな神経だ is unlikely to happen if the kicker was drunken. If a sober person seriously tried to kick through a concrete wall and got hurt, you might say どんな神経をしてるんだ (but not なんて図太い神経なんだ).
    – naruto
    Dec 27, 2022 at 16:32

Looking at entries in Cambridge online, there are these:

  • the courage or confidence necessary to do something difficult, unpleasant, or rude:
  • the rudeness to do something that you know will upset other people:

In terms of meaning, nerve and 神経 are rather similar. 神経 is used for daring to do something rude. どういう神経・どんな神経(してる) is more or less equivalent to what a nerve. Rather than 'courage'(勇気) or 'confidence'(自信), it is generally called 厚かましさ.

In terms of translation, my impression is that you need to see it as 'what a nerve' in some way even for 'having the nerve'. For example (from the link above),

She's late for work every day, but she still has the nerve to lecture me about punctuality.

彼女は毎日遅刻してるのに、自分に時間を守るように言ってくるのはどういう神経をしてるのか (Literally 'what kind of nerve does she have to lecture me about punctuality')

So, in most cases, that sense of 神経 is used in the form of どんな神経 although there are phrases like 神経が太い/図太い神経をしている etc.

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