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You might think that, as an inanimate object, a rod would be incapable of doing much. But 棒 (BŌ: rod, pole, stick) pairs off with several actions, as in the following expressions:
棒読み (bōyomi) rod + reading
棒を引く (bō o hiku) rod + to pull
棒立ち (bōdachi) rod + standing
Any ideas what these might mean? If I were guessing blindly, I might interpret 棒読み as a divining rod, an instrument to detect water or metal. Meanwhile, 棒を引く could refer to pulling a sword from a stone. As for 棒立ち, it could be a telephone pole. Wrong in every case! Let’s take ‘em one by one.
Reading Like a Rod
It turns out that 棒読み has two meanings:
棒読み (bōyomi: reading in a monotone; reading a Chinese classical text without translating it into Japanese) rod + reading
I love the first definition. It takes me back to those miserable childhood years when we had to read aloud in class. Oh, the droning was unbearable, wasn’t it? In the Japanese mind, perhaps reading monotonously means reading as stiffly as a stick! Actually, Halpern says 棒 means “straight” or “in a straight line” in this case, but I have trouble seeing how that might apply. Maybe it has to do with reading straight down (or across) a line of text without stopping to think about meaning.
But what about the second definition? I take it that when typical Japanese people read a Chinese classical text, they have little idea of what it means, so they can’t possibly read with dramatic flair. Instead, they sound out syllables in an uncompelling way, much as many of us now read Japanese texts!
Drawing the Line
OK, how about the next phrase?
棒を引く (bō o hiku: to draw a line) rod + to pull
This means “to draw a line” in a literal way. It’s not the same as the English expression “I draw the line here,” which means, “I’ve had enough, and I’m setting a limit with you. Do this again, and you’re out on your ear.”
But … rod + to pull? I thought the rod or stick in question might be a pencil or brush. However, it turns out that 棒 can also mean “straight line,” as is the case here. As for “pull,” in Japanese, one speaks of “pulling” a line across a page.
When you turn this expression into a noun, here’s what you get:
棒引き (bōbiki: cancellation; writing off (a debt)) rod + to pull
You can use this expression when striking through unwanted text:
Machigattara, sono mama bōbiki de keshite oite kudasai.
If you make a mistake, just cross it out neatly.
間違 (machiga(u): to make a mistake)
timing + difference
消 (ke(su): to eliminate)
In some cases, you might be striking through a record of a debt, which is a handy thing to know how to do! Even better: if you’re using 棒引き, no one has actually paid off the debt. Rather, it has been forgiven. That’s the kind of forgiveness I like!
Shakkin o bōbiki shimashita.
They nullified the debt.
借金 (shakkin: debt, loan, liabilities)
to borrow + money
Springing to One’s Feet
Now we come to the last of the mysterious expressions about rods in action:
棒立ち (bōdachi: standing stiffly upright; rearing)
rod + standing
When people spring to their feet in surprise, they stiffen, becoming stick-straight (and in fact Halpern says 棒 means “straight” here). Meanwhile, when a horse feels surprised, it rears, standing upright by rising on its haunches.
You might think the following expression would have a similar meaning:
足を棒にして (ashi o bō ni shite) leg + rod
Instead, in this case, the person is already upright and has been in that position for far too long. It’s not the torso but rather the legs that turn into rods. More specifically, here’s what the term means:
足を棒にして (ashi o bō ni shite: (e.g., to walk, stand, etc., until) one’s legs turn to lead; (doing something) until one’s legs tire and stiffen) leg + rod
That state of affairs may sound unpleasant, but it’s a sign of work done thoroughly—for example, by salespeople or by campaigning politicians, both of whom need to pound the pavement.
To me 足を棒にして is the sign of a perfect trip. If you’re traveling and you walk and walk and walk until your legs tighten, swell, and threaten to fall off, then you’ve had a full and satisfying experience. I had just this sort of trip recently, and the link shows some of the many streets that turned my 足 to 棒.
Time for your Verbal Logic Quiz!