Long post today. Lot to talk about when it comes to horses. We'll look at how horse and deer come together to mean "idiot" and how much horses care about winds and religious writings.
Readings & Meanings:
"Dumbass!" the children shouted.
I want to try riding a horse on an open, grassy field.
Even if you criticize him, he cares about as much as a horse cares about the spring wind (it rolls off him like water from a duck's back).
Even if you tell him that, it's like chanting sutras to a horse (like talking to a brick wall).
馬 is a radical in its own right. 馬 is also a pictogram of its meaning: horse. It's used in 駅 (train station) and 駆ける (to ride, gallop, run).
Mostly written today in hiragana or katakana (katakana emphasizes the insult even more), 馬鹿 is the original kanji of the word everyone uses to describe an idiot. Writing it in kanji is not unheard-of, though.
馬 is horse. 鹿 is deer. Wha?
There are a lot of stories and theories about how 馬鹿 came to be. Many Japanese people think it's just ateji, from when Japanese people pick random kanji for sounds, not for meaning. Others think that 馬鹿 comes from a Sanskrit word for hypocrite. (Sanskrit has a very loose connection to Japanese, via the Buddhist sutras. See dharma and だるま.)
I like the stories about 馬鹿. Below are two or three varieties:
A Chinese emperor went hunting and spotted a horse. He said, "Look at that deer!" His attendants all agreed it was a beautiful deer, for fear of the emperor. Through this fear, everyone became stupid.
A morality tale twist on the above:
A Chinese emperor went hunting and spotted a horse. He said, "Look at that deer!" His attendants all agreed it was a beautiful deer, all but one. That one said, "That is a horse." The Emperor had all of the yes-men attendants killed, and elevated the one that told him the truth to be his second-in-command.
How nice. But that sounds too Brothers-Grimm for me to accept. This bleaker one sounds more likely:
In China, the succeeding emperor was a bit slow. He was controlled completely by his second-in-command. One day, the second-in-command presented the court with a deer, saying it was a horse. The emperor asked his attendants what they saw, but they were too afraid of the puppeteer behind the throne to speak honestly. They said they saw a horse.
What to say? That last one is the older story, but it's probably just plain-old folk etymology. (I love folk etymology, though.) The evidence against the story being true is pretty damning. The Chinese pronunciation of the characters 馬鹿 is not the same as the Japanese, as would be expected if it were a borrowing from Chinese.
Also, Chinese people don't have the last story in their history. Chinese apparently does have an idiom for "Point at a deer and call it a horse," but it means to point at black and call it white, to lie and call it truth. (I don't speak Chinese, so please correct me if I'm wrong.) But the sense of "stupidity" just isn't there.
Usage of バカ today:
バカ can range in rudeness degree. It can be as light as "Silly!" and as pointed as "Dumb F*@#". It always has a connotation of stupidity.
In Tokyo, being called "baka" is usually not worth raising your fists over. In the Kansai region (Osaka/Kyoto/Nara), it's apparently more insulting than not. (The reverse is true of アホ: In Kansai it's like "dude" but in Tokyo it's a fighting word.)
ソー, I encourage you to remember the story about the puppet emperor and the deer gift. It'll stick in your mind better that way.
馬耳東風 - Horse ears, spring wind. This means indifference to what other people say or do.
The spring wind is an exciting thing to feel and smell. Don't you love the smell of spring? That rich scent that means the plants will start blooming, the weather will be warm, the snow will (maybe) stop falling?
Well, to a horse, it's just wind. Horses aren't going to care all that much. So, while we humans dance and sing in the spring wind, horses just twitch their ears and snort.
馬の耳に念仏 - A prayer in a horse's ear. This means that your words do nothing, fall flat, have no effect.
Although this seems obvious--if a horse doesn't care about spring winds, why would he care about a prayer?--I feel I should add one comment. Most Japanese people hear only gibberish when Buddhist monks pray. Their prayers are done in a stylized tongue. So, to a horse, it's doubly meaningless.
It's a hilarious image. A monk bending the ear of a horse to chant a prayer. What's the horse doing in the temple, anyway?