第351課: Idioms IV: 四字熟語

     四字熟語 literally means "four character compound word". Technically, the term refers to all words made up of four characters. In a narrow-sense, the word refers to four character set expressions. That is what we will be discussing. For academic punctuality, the term "四字成語" is preferred because it means "four character set phrase". However, most people refer to them as "四字熟語". Due to their origin, most can also be called "四字漢語". 


    What is an Idiom?

    Japanese people will easily tell you that the following is a set phrase.

弁慶の泣き所

    弁慶べんけい means "strong man" and 泣き所 means "place where one cries". Together, the phrase refers to the shin. If you are kicked in the shin, even if you are a strong man, you are going to cry.

     Idioms are rated by "idiomaticity"--how idiomatic something is. Every Japanese person knows 四面楚歌(しめんそか) (to be surrounded by enemies on all four sides) and 波瀾万丈(はらんばんじょう) (stormy and full of drama). Phrases like 大学教育 (college education) are non-idiomatic. The idiomatic ones, though, are important to entrance exams in Japan, and they're often used in showing off to other people.

     Again, the term normally refers to such words that deviate from a literal direct translation. Some compounds create a problem. For example, many idioms in Japanese have been introduced through direct translation.

 A 四字熟語
 教室崩壊 きょうしつほうかい Destruction of the classroom
 A Generic Idiom
 氷山の一角 ひょうざんのいっかく Tip of the iceberg
 Idiom of the Body  鼻の差で はなのさで By a nose

     To the English speaker, these expressions are no doubt idiomatic. As for the typical 四字熟語, they are not 'deviant' from the original definition. Most 四字熟語 come from Buddhist texts/Chinese literature.

     It is to note that non-idiomatic (four character) expressions can over time obtain an idiomatic usage. 一時停止, which means "suspension", can now describe a guy stopping traffic because he won't go.


The 6 Sources

  1. From modern society-- 官官接待"bureaucrats entertaining bureaucrats using public funds".
  2. Made in Japan, many are reading with 訓読み--手練手管(てれんてくだ) "art of coaxing".
  3. From Chinese literature--臥薪嘗胆(がしんしょうたん) "enduring unspeakable hardships for the sake of vengeance". 
  4. Buddhist terminology--四苦八苦 "the four and eight kinds of suffering"
  5. The insertion of 之 which has been used in neo-classical and Chinese-style Japanese literature in place of の. These phrases are arguably not 四字熟語
  6. From 訓読, the process of reading 漢文. So, they're Classical Japanese sentences fit to Chinese syntax and pronunciation. These phrases are often considered anachronistic. As such, they tend to not be in dictionaries.

     At times, 四字熟語 originating from Chinese have deviated in meaning. 七転八倒(しちてんばっとう) means "writhing in agony" in Japanese and "very confused" in Chinese. There is also obvious significant phonetic deviation.

Analysis of 64 四字熟語

You aren't required to memorize them all, but they are great practice. There isn't a particular ordering of the idioms. 

一刀両断(いっとうりょうだん)
One-sword-both (sides)-cut into
1. To cut in two with a single blow
2. To take drastic measures

色即是空(しきそくぜくう)
Rupa-in other words-there is-vanity
1. All is vanity
Note: 色 (rupa) means all things have shape

手前味噌(てまえみそ)
My-miso
1. Self-flattery
Note: 手前 is used with its humble first person pronoun definition.

付和雷同
ふわらいどう
Attach-peace-thunder-same 
1. To follow people blindly.

暖衣飽食(だんいほうしょく)
Warm-clothes-tired of-eating
1. Well-fed and well-dressed
2. Being blessed materially
Note: May also be written as 煖衣飽食.

一期一会(いちごいちえ)
One-time-one-meet
1. Once in a lifetime (encounter)
Note: Of Japanese in origin

美人薄命(びじんはくめい)
Beauty-person-thin-life
1. A beautiful woman is destined to die young
2. Beauty and fortune seldom go together
3. The beautiful die young

月下氷人(げっかひょうじん)
Moon-under-ice-person
1. Matchmaker; go-between

唯我独尊(ゆいがどくそん)
Only-self-alone-honor
1. Self-righteousness
2. Holy am I alone

二股膏薬(ふたまたごうやく)
Two-sides-salve
1. Double-dealer
2. Moving back and forth between two sides in a conflict
Also read as ふたまこうやく, and it is Japanese in origin.

一石二鳥(いっせきにちょう)
One-stone-two-birds
1. Killing two birds with one stone
Note: Originally an English expression.

呉越同舟(ごえつどうしゅう)
Go-Etsu-same-boat
1. Bitter enemies in the same boat by fate
Note: From a Chinese story where Go and Etsu were old rivals that toppled the vessel when they had to be together, which in turn made them have to save each other.

順風満帆(じゅんぷうまんぱん)
Gentle-wind-full-sails
1. Smooth sailing; everything going smoothly

悪因悪果(あくいんあっか)
Evil-cause-evil-result
1. You reap what you sow
Note: Originally from Buddhist scriptures.

弱肉強食(じゃくにくきょうしょく)
Weak-meat-strong-eat
1. Survival of the fittest
2. Laws of the Jungle

寂滅為楽(じゃくめついらく)
Loneliness-destroy-to do-happiness
1. Freedom from one's desires
2. Nirvana is true bliss
Note: Originally from Buddhist scriptures

色恋沙汰(いろこいざた)
Sensual-love-affair
1. Love affair
2. Romantic entanglement

酔生夢死(すいせいむし)
Drunken-life-dream-death
1. Idling one's life away
2. Dreaming away one's life accomplishes nothing significant

十人十色(じゅうにんといろ)
Ten-people-ten-colors
1. To each his own
2. So many people, so many minds
3. Everyone has his own interests and ideas

朝三暮四(ちょうさんぼし)
Morning-three-evening-four
1. Being preoccupied with immediate superficial differences without realizing that there is no difference in substance
Note: From a story where a monkey feeder would feed a monkey three horse chestnuts in the morning and four in the evening and switched it around because he got mad.

異体同心
いたいどうしん
Different-body-different-mind
1. Being of one mind; acting in one accord/perfect harmony

会者定離
えしゃじょうり
Meeting-person-always-separates
1. Those who meet must part
Note: Originated from Buddhist scriptures

生者必滅
しょうじゃひつめつ
Living-people-certainly-die
1. All living things must die
Note: Originated from Buddhist scriptures

我田引水
がでんいんすい
Own-field-draw-water
1. Self-seeking
2. Feathering one's own nest
3. Drawing water for one's own field
Originated from the rich agrarian society of old China and Japan.

五里夢中
ごりむちゅう
Five-ri (2.44 miles)-fog-inside
1. Totally at a loss; in a fog

古色蒼然
こしょくそうぜん
Old-color-blue-is
1. Antique-looking
2. With the patina of age

羊頭狗肉
ようとうくにく
Sheep-head-dog-meat
1. Crying wine and selling vinegar; using a better name to sell inferior goods
2. Extravagant advertisement

 

黒風白雨(こくふうはくう)
Black-wind-white-rain
1. Sudden rain shower in a dust storm

高山流水(こうざんりゅうすい)
Tall-mountain-running-water
1. Beauty of nature
2. Beautifully played music
3. Tall mountains and rushing water

花鳥風月
かちょうふうげつ
Flower-bird-wind-moon
1. The beauties of nature

三々五々(さんさんごご)
Three-three-five-five
1. In small groups

一望千里(いちぼうせんり)
One-hope-thousand-ri
1. Sweeping expanse

五風十雨(ごふうじゅうう)
Five-wind-ten-rain
1. Halcyon weather/times

九死一生(きゅうしいっしょう)
Nine-deaths-one-life
1. Narrow escape from death

五十知命(ごじゅうちめい)
Fifty-wisdom-life
1. At 50 one comes to know the will of Heaven
Note: This is a Confucius saying.

朝雲暮雨(ちょううんぼう)
Morning-clouds-evening-rain
Sexual liaison

三千世界(さんぜんせかい)
Three-thousand-worlds
1. The whole universe

一文半銭(いちもんはんせん)
One-mon-half-sen
1. Meager sum of money

一文不通(いちもんふつう)
One-sentence-block
Totally illiterate

一陽来復(いちようらいふく)
One-sun-return
The return of spring

一利一害(いちりいちがい)
One-profit-one gain
1. Advantage and its disadvantage

一挙一動(いっきょいちどう)
One-action-one-move
1. One's every move

一死報国(いっしほうこく)
One-death-patriotism
1. Dying for one's country

浅学非才(せんがくひさい)
Shallow-learning-no-ability
1. Lack of learning and ability

円満具足(えんまんぐそく)
Satisfactory-completeness
1. Complete, tranquil, and in harmony

再三再四(さいさんさいし)
Re-three-re-four
1. Repeatedly

人心一新(じんしんいっしん)
Person-heart-one-new
1. Complete change in public sentiment

一心同体(いっしんどうたい)
One-heart-same-body
1. One in body and soul

一路平安(いちろへいあん)
One-road-security
Bon voyage

一路順風(いちろじゅんぷう)
One-road-gentle-wind
1. Everything going well

心機一転(しんきいってん)
Heart-move-turn
Change in attitude

意気投合(いきとうごう)
Spirit-congeniality
1. Find a kindred spirit

才子多病(さいしたびょう)
Genius-child-many-diseases
1. Talented people tend to be delicate
2. Men of genius tend to be of delicate health

九牛一毛(きゅうぎゅういちもう)
Nine-cows-one-hair
1. A drop in the ocean

一衣帯水(いちいたいすい)
One-clothes-obi-water
1. Being separated by a narrow stretch of water

清風明月(せいふうめいげつ)
Pure-wind-bright-moon
1. Refreshing breeze and the bright moon

純一無雑(じゅんいちむざつ)
Pure-one-no-disarray
1. Pure in heart

下意上達(かいじょうたつ)
Lower idea-advance
1. Conveyance of lower class opinions to the powers that be

急転直下(きゅうてんちょっか)
Sudden-change-directly-under
1. Suddenly and precipitately

悠々自適(ゆうゆうじてき)
Leisure-leisure-self-capable
1. Otium cum dignitate
2. Living a life of leisure and dignity

海千山千(うみせんやません)
Ocean-thousand-mountain-thousand
1. A sly old dog of much worldly wisdom
Note: Japanese in origin

乾坤一擲(けんこんいってき)
Universe-one-off away
1. Play for all or nothing

厚顔無恥(こうがんむち)
Heavy-face-no-shame
1. Brazen and unscrupulous; shameless

傍目八目
おかめはちもく
Side-eye-eight-eyes
1. A bystander's vantage point
2. Onlookers of a game see more than the actual players do

Additional 四字熟語

 

 一分一厘 いちぶいちりん Not even a bit
 一網打尽 いちもうだじん Wholesale arrest
 暗雲低迷 あんうんていめい Dark clouds hanging low
 曖昧模糊 あいまいもこ Ambiguous
 悪戦苦闘 あくせんくとう Hard struggle
 一瞬絶句 いっしゅんぜっく Rendered speechless for a moment
 一生懸命 いっしょうけんめい With all one's might
 一心不乱 いっしんふらん With heart and soul
 一体全体 いったいぜんたい What on earth?
 迂闊千万 うかつせんばん Very careless
 宇宙開闢 うちゅうかいびゃく Since the dawn of time
 容貌端正 ようぼうたんせい To have handsome and clean-cut features
 有史以来 ゆうしいらい Since the dawn of history
 和洋折衷 わようせっちゅう A blending of Japanese and Western styles
 和光同塵 わこうどうじん Wise men softening their light while with the mundane world
 老少不定 ろうしょうふじょう Death comes to old and young alike
 劣弱意識 れつじゃくいしき Inferior complex
 縷々綿々 るるめんめん To go on and on in tedious detail
 流転生死 るてんしょうじ The cycle of transmigration
 風声鶴唳 ふうせいかくれい To be frightened by the slightest noise
 風林火山 ふうりんかざん Swift as wind, quiet as forest, fierce as fire, and immovable as mountains
 武運長久 ぶうんちょうきゅう Continued luck in the fortunes of war
 複雑多岐 ふくざつたき Labyrinthine
 表裏一体 ひょうりいったい The two sides of the same coin
 比翼連理 ひよくれんり Perfect conjugal harmony between husband and wife
 百人百様 ひゃくにんひゃくよう So many men, so many ways
 眉目秀麗 びもくしゅうれい Having a handsome face
 飛耳長目 ひじちょうもく Being well-versed on something
 煩悶懊悩 はんもんおうのう Anguish
 万緑一紅 ばんりょくいっこう One red flower standing out in a see of green vegetation
 万事承知 ばんじしょうち Being well aware of
 八方美人 はっぽうびじん A woman who looks beautiful from all angles
 拈華微笑 ねんげみしょう Heart-to-heart communication
 如是我聞 にょぜがもん Thus I hear
 如露如電 にょろにょでん Existence is as incorporeal as the morning dew or flash of lightning
 南無八幡 なむはちまん I beseech your aid against my enemy!
 内剛外柔 ないごうがいじゅう Being gentle on the outside but tough on the inside
 土崩瓦解 どほうがかい Complete collapse
 道聴塗説 どうちょうとせつ Shallow-minded mouthing of secondhand information
 闘志満々 とうしまんまん Brimming with fighting spirit
 東西古今 とうざいここん All times and places
 桃紅柳緑 とうこうりゅうりょく The beautiful scenery of spring
 同工異曲
 どうこういきょく Different in appearance but the same in content
 天網恢恢 てんもうかいかい Heaven's vengeance is slow but sure
 恬淡虚無 てんたんきょむ Rising above the trivia of life and remaining calm and selfless
 天真流露 てんしんりゅうろ Manifestation of one's natural sincerity
 天地晦冥 てんちかいめい The world is covered in darkness
 天空海闊 てんくうかいかつ The open sky and serene sea
 天下泰平 てんかたいへい Peaceful and tranquil
 痛快淋漓 つうかいりんり To be extremely delightful
 痴話喧嘩 ちわげんか Lover's quarrel
 跳梁跋扈 ちょうりょうばっこ Evildoers being rampant and roaming at will
 寵愛一身 ちょうあいっしん To stand highest in one's master's favor
 忠言逆耳 ちゅうげんぎゃくじ Good advice is harsh to the ear
 躊躇逡巡 ちゅうちょしゅんじゅん Hesitation and vacillation
 魑魅魍魎 ちみもうりょう All sorts of weird creatures
 着眼大局 ちゃくがんたいきょく To take a broad view of things
 智慧不惑 ちえふわく A wise man never wavers
 知行合一 ちこうごういつ The doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action
 単刀直入 たんとうちょくにゅう Going right to the point
 男尊女卑 だんそんじょひ Male domination of women
 多岐亡羊 たきぼうよう
 Truth is as hard to find as a sheep lost in a vast plain
 大漁貧乏 たいりょうびんぼう Impoverishment of fisherman due to a bumper catch
 大胆巧妙 だいたんこうみょう Bold and clever
 大山鳴動 たいざんめいどう A big fuss over nothing
 大器晩成 たいきばんせい Great talents mature late
 則天去私 そくてんきょし Following heaven and abandoning self
 造反有理 ぞうはんゆうり To rebel is justified
 先憂後楽 せんゆうこうらく Hardship now, pleasure later
 戦々恐々 せんせんきょうきょう To be filled with trepidation
 絶体絶命 ぜったいぜつめい Desperate situation
 切磋琢磨 せっさたくま Cultivating one's mind by studying hard
 世上万般 せじょうばんぱん Everything in this world
 青天白日 せいてんはくじつ To be cleared of all charges
 正邪善悪 せいじゃぜんあく Right and wrong
 政権亡者 せいけんもうじゃ One who is obsessed with political power
 酔眼朦朧 すいがんもうろう With drunken eyes
 垂涎三尺 すいぜんさんじゃく Avid desire
 衰退一途 すいたいいっと Being on the wane
 頭寒足熱 ずかんそくねつ Keeping the head cool and the feet warm
 人馬一体 じんばいったい Unity of rider and horse
 心頭滅却 しんとうめっきゃく Clearing one's mind of all mundane thoughts
 神色自若 しんしょくじじゃく Perfect composure
 心身一如 しんしんいちにょ Body and mind as one
 辛酸甘苦 しんさんかんく Hardships and joy
 支離滅裂 しりめつれつ Incoherent
 諸行無常 しょぎょうむじょう All worldly things are transitory
 四面楚歌 しめんそか To be surrounded by enemies on all sides
 生者必滅 しょうじゃひつめつ All living things must die
 純真無垢 じゅんしんむく Pure and innocent
 秋風落莫 しゅうふうらくばく Forlorn and helpless
 遮二無二 しゃにむに Recklessly
 詩人墨客 しじんぼっかく Poets and artists
 残念無念 ざんねんむねん What a pity!
 昨非今是
 さくひこんぜ
 Complete reversal of values