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Cats. Where to begin? They’re cute, cunning, easily offended, happy with or without us and we could never imagine our lives without them. They are rich in mystery and surprise and it’s no wonder the Internet is flooded with pictures and videos of them.

Japan also has a long history of interactions with cats, from believing they can foresee natural disasters to being creatures of vengeance, out to kill humans. Because of this, there are some great Japanese words that use “neko” (猫), the word for “cat,” in combination with another character. Learn some Japanese, and fall even more in love with cats through our list of 10 “catty” Japanese words.

1. Nekojita 猫舌 – (literally ‘cat tongue’) inability to take hot food/drink


This is a Japanese word to describe someone who can’t handle hot food or drinks. Some believe that this word came into existence due to cats themselves disliking hot things. Anyone you see blowing incessantly on their drink or food or waits an inordinate amount of time before drinking and eating likely has nekojita.

2. Nekoze 猫背 – (literally ‘cat back’) bent back, hunchback, stoop


If someone told you, you were suffering from kyphosis, you probably would have no idea what that is supposed to mean. However, if instead they said, “You have cat back,” you would instantly understand that your back was curved all to heck like a cat in “fight or flight” mode.  This isn’t the only word for this symptom, but it’s certainly the most amusing!

3. Nekoguruma 猫車 – (literally ‘cat car/cat wheel’) wheelbarrow


The meaning of this word is ‘wheelbarrow’ though other more modern words, like 手押し車 (teoshiguruma) and  一輪車 (ichirinsha) are generally used instead. The etymology of nekoguruma also stems from the imagery. Cats can easily fit and weave through narrow spaces, similar to a wheelbarrow. Also when a wheelbarrow moves along rougher terrain, it kind of sounds like a cat purring!

4. Nekozame 猫鮫 – (literally ‘cat shark’) Japanese bullhead shark


It’s really interesting when two different cultures look at the same object or animal and see a different defining feature. This is the perfect example of that. When it came time to name the Japanese bullhead shark in English, people focused on the round bull-like head of this shark and appropriately named it a Japanese bullhead shark. Japanese people, on the other hand, saw what looked like ears protruding from the top of its head and called it the ‘cat shark’.  If only it had whiskers like a catfish!

5. Nekomusume 猫娘 – (literally ‘cat girl’) character who looks/acts like a cat.


This expression is really easy to figure out on your own, because it’s actually what the two words mean put together. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the first apparent usage of the word was in a picture book from the 1800s! It was used for a girl who had the strange habit of licking people. More conventionally, it is used to describe a girl who looks and acts like a cat. Numerous manga and anime have used this character trope and it’s still up in the air whether being called a ‘nekomusume’ is a good or a bad thing.

6. Nekobaba 猫糞 – (literally ‘cat feces’) embezzlement, misappropriation, pocketing, stealing


You know how cats have a funny habit of burying their business after they’ve used the litter box? Some Japanese person clearly must have owned a cat and had some dishonest friends who acted just like a feline trying to cover up their dirty deeds. At least for cats, it’s a habit born of survival so that their predators wouldn’t be able to find their droppings and track them. While for those white-collar criminals, they are just flailing around, making excuses and trying to convince everyone of their innocence.

7. Nekodamashi 猫騙し – (literally ‘deceiving a cat’) slapping hands in front of the opponent’s face to confuse him


The modern use of this word is a name for a sumo technique where one wrestler slaps their hands loudly in the other wrestler’s face in order to cause them to blink giving them a brief advantage to act. Slapping your hands in front of a cat certainly yields the same reaction. If however, you try to throw your cat to the ground after trying that move, there are no rules that will keep those claws from coming out.

This is also the Japanese name of the attack “Fake Out” in the Pokémon games starting from Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald.

8. Neko ni koban 猫に小判 – (literally ‘giving money/gold coin to a cat) pearls before swine


There is a similar saying in English “pearls before swine” that this saying correlates to. In both languages this carries two meanings: 1. Giving a gift to someone who can’t appreciate it, and 2. pursuing an objective without completely comprehending it. According to some superstitions, cats loved to play with the Japanese gold coins (koban) even though they had no idea how much their toy was worth. Cats always claim things for themselves that aren’t theirs, don’t they?.

9. Nekokaburi 猫かぶり – (literally ‘cat cover/veil’) feigned innocence or naiveté, wolf in sheep’s clothing


Cats are good at many things, but looking innocent when they are obviously guilty takes the cake. “What? You think I knocked the Lego masterpiece off the shelf? I wasn’t even in the room! Look into my eyes…they’re full of innocence!” Putting on a “cat veil” may make you look innocent, but we all know you’re just the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

10. Koukishin neko wo korosu 好奇心猫を殺す – (literally ‘curiosity killed the cat’)


This gem of a phrase is actually a direct translation of the English saying that is now used in Japanese. The proverb “cats have nine lives” has also been taken from English and adapted into the language. And like most proverbs, not everyone knows exactly what this means. This might be made even worse because it is borrowed from English, so you might have to do some extra explaining when talking about the meaning of this proverb.

We hope you were able to learn something from these cat words. Try and sneak one of these CATch phrases into your next Japanese conversation. Trust us, your partner will have a meow-tastic time!

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Images: RocketNews24