When it’s not quite good enough to be 「まあまあ」

In this short post, I’ll be talking about 「微妙」(びみょう), a na-adjective that is used quite often in Japanese. The word 「微妙」 itself describes a state of delicate balance and indicates that things can easily go one way or the other.

You can find many examples from the WWWJDIC of this usage such as the following sentence.

-The word has a delicate shade of difference in meaning.

While the word when used in this fashion is not slang, there is one more way to use 「微妙」 that can be considered slang: a negative version of 「まあまあ」.

Many of you probably have already learned 「まあまあ」 in the classroom as a way of describing something as “so-so”. However, while 「まあまあ」 means neither good nor bad, it has a favorable connotation. 「微妙」 on the other hand, while also used to describe something that is neither good nor bad, looks at things in a negative light. To illustrate, let’s look at the two different responses to the following question.

Q: 味はどう? – How is the taste?

A1: まあまあ。- It’s not bad.
A2: 微妙・・・。- Umm… it’s not that good.

The first answer is saying, while the taste is not great necessarily, it not that bad. The second answer takes the opposite stance and indicates that while the taste is not terrible, it’s just not very good. It’s similar to the “cup is half-empty/half-full” distinction. While both mean the same thing, the attitude is completely opposite from each other.

Here are some interesting examples of 「微妙」 that I came up with. Be careful not to insult anybody using this word (unless that’s your intent)! That’s probably why they only teach you 「まあまあ」 in class.

1: あの子は、かわいくない? – Don’t you think that girl is cute?
2: う~ん、微妙だな。 – Hmm, nah, not really.

1: 明日、時間空いている? – Do you have time open tomorrow?
2: 明日は、ちょっと微妙かも。 – Tomorrow might be a bit shady.

As you can see from the second example, like most slang, you can use 「微妙」 in all sorts of situations. Try it on your Japanese friends today!

3 thoughts on “When it’s not quite good enough to be 「まあまあ」

  1. cultural note for anyone interested: because of the negative connotation, and extreme overusage of the word by teens, 微妙 is seen by more conservative (typically older) japanese people as not only negative, but as an apathetic word.

    It’s often found in the classroom, and spoken by people who not only don’t understand, but don’t want to make an effort to understand. I don’t believe that for everybody, and the reasons for the lack of interest vary from person to person and class to class, however I do hear a lot of teachers complain about students using the word. That, and it’s partner in crime 面倒臭い (めんどうくさい – pain in the arse/bothersome/etc).

    The two are often viewed as words that represent the general trend towards laziness many older Japanese sill be happy to complain is successively plaguing each new generation.

    So, though 微妙 itself is a word, and seemingly useful, I myself take care not to overuse it, use it when I mean it, and to watch my apathy meter.

    Though, if you don’t care much about this sort of stuff, 微妙 is definitely the word for you =)

  2. This entry is kind of old, so I dont no know if you care about my comment, but I will use this word today. Thanks. Living in Japan as a foreigner is sometime kind of lonely, so if you use this kind of words makes people around you feel that you are part of them and not a foreigner that doesnt even know how to speak. Well, also take in count that I am in highschool.My first comment!, so keep it going buddy, you are being very usefull to me.

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