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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Beta - not Betaa

ベタ

If you know a smattering of Japanese and you are listening to Japanese people talking among themselves, you may well catch what sounds like the word "better" and think they are using katakana English to express a preference for something.

However, the chances are that rather than betaa, with its long drawn out final "ah" sound, that corresponds to the English "better," you are actually overhearing the word beta ("beh-ta"), which is quite different - almost opposite - in meaning, in fact.

Sore wa beta na hyogen da 「それはベタな表現だ」, or Beta na hassou da ベタな発想だ mean, respectively, "That's a hackneyed expression" or "(That's a) humdrum idea."

According to a contributor to the excellent Yahoo Chiebukuro (literally "Yahoo Knowledge Bag") website, an online forum for all possible kinds of questions, there are two possibilities when it comes to beta's roots.

One is that beta is a corruption of the word subete, or "everything," "all," in the sense of "covering everyhing," "being all the same," and that this developed in about the 17th century.

The other approaches this same idea of "uninterupted sameness" and "lack of differentiation" from a completely different angle, i.e., from the established meaning of beta (べた, in hiragana, not katakana) as "mud," this mud being used to fill in all the gaps - as on an old block wall, for example - to make the surface smooth and featureless.

Whichever the theory that you go with, there are many words in Japanese in use today that express this sense of flatness, e.g., betanuri べた塗り means painting or spreading a substance over a surface to make its smooth, betanagi べた凪 means calmness or wavelessness on a body of water, betaashi べた足 is a golfing term used to describe planting your feet flat on the ground before making a swing, betabore べた惚れ means to fall hopelessly in love with someone ("fall flat in love" kind of works in English, too!), and betabome べた褒め means to praise someone to the skies (in the sense of completely ["smoothly" if you like] slathering them with praise).

By the end of the 18th century, saucy Edo-period short novels, which closely mirrored life on the streets, were including the word beta in the sense of "lacking a twist" and being "two a penny" - a usage which before long found its way into the language of artists and entertainers to describe cliched, corny, unimaginative and same-old-same-old.

So keep a close ear out for whether that last "ah" sound is short or lengthened. There's a crucial difference.

Zenzen beta na hanashi ja nai ne! 全然ベタな話じゃないね! (It's not your everyday kind of story at all, is it!)

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