All about baka! Meaning, origins and more

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What does baka mean? The short answer:

Baka (馬鹿 or ばか) is a Japanese swear or curse word meaning idiot, jackass, dumbass, or unthinking fool. (Excuse our language, please!)

That said, baka’s meaning is highly contextual, as our resident Japanese expert explains:

Baka (馬鹿) means a fool or an idiot, and used as an insult. It’s a world children would use, though, of course, that’s not encouraged! Many people will tell you never to say baka when speaking Japanese, but that’s not entirely accurate. 

There are not many swear words in the Japanese language, so it’s true that this word shouldn’t be used lightly when dealing with acquaintances, strangers, or co-workers. 

However, just like in English, some people will use baka when speaking to close friends and loved ones as a kind of endearment. Tone is very important. So the word baka may be used in real life more than you think. You just have to be careful how and when you use it!”


That’s the quick version

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Unsatisfied by the short answer? Here’s the longer version:

Maybe you heard someone being called baka. Maybe you saw it in Japanese film and TV – it’s incredibly common in anime. Or maybe you were on the receiving end of this rather childish insult yourself. 

Whatever your reason for seeking baka’s meaning, you’ve come to the right spot – we’ll define this well-known Japanese curse word, then get into the nitty gritty of its use and meaning in English.

A deeper dive into the meaning of baka

While there’s no direct translation of baka in English, we can talk about words that are similar and the subtle implications of the word. 

 Depending on the context, baka as an insult has subtle notes of:

  • Willfully ignorant
  • Careless or thoughtless
  • Lacking understanding
  • Useless or broken
  • Abusing a stereotype

But wait! Baka isn’t just an insult: 3 other possible meanings 

To complicate matters even further, baka has three other meanings and uses:

1. Obsessed

It can also be used to say that someone is crazy for something, or so distracted by a particular thing that they become careless in other areas. This is usually in a compound word, where baka is added as a suffix.

For example:

Senmonbaka (専門ばか): booksmart but not street smart, someone who’s an expert or academic, but lacks common knowledge

Oyabaka (親馬鹿 or おやばか): literally a parent idiot, meaning doting parents, used to describe parents who are so in love with their children that they fail to see their faults.  

Sentoubaka (戦闘ばか): someone who loves to fight, fighting-stupid. 

There’s even a well-known manga series called Tsuribaka-Nisshi (釣りバカ日誌), basically meaning Fishing Nut’s Diary. It centres around a salaryman named Densuke Hamasaki who loves fishing so much, his unimaginative supervisor calls him ‘Fishing-baka’ – but the joke’s on his manager, because through fishing he meets and befriends his company’s CEO. 

2. Very

Super, extra, or very – used the way we would say, “it was insanely crowded at the club last night” or, “This new Netflix series is crazy good.” In this case, baka is added as a prefix.

For example:

Baka dekai (馬鹿でかい): ridiculously big

Baka dakai (馬鹿高い): super expensive

Baka uke (馬鹿受): very popular, quickly gaining popularity

3. My humble (stupid) self

Lastly, you can turn baka on yourself! You can use it to say that you yourself have done a careless thing or been distracted by something, or simply to give reverence to the thing you care most about. It’s usually used humbly and jokingly.

Using baka: do’s and don’ts

When you can use baka

Now, we’re covering the most crucial bit of all! Here are the most common situations where you can use baka:

  • Friendly ribbing with someone you’re close to
  • When you mean to offend
  • To call yourself obsessed with something 
  • As a prefix to describe something as super or extra something

When you shouldn’t use baka

And here are the times you should never use baka:

  • At work
  • Once more for the people at the back, do not use baka at work!
  • When you’re looking for a date
  • Any time you’re not sure it’ll be taken the way you mean it

Basically, err on the side of bak-caution.

And lastly, when thinking about whether or not to let a “baka!” escape your lips, consider where you are – or where the person you’re talking to is from.

Spelling and pronunciation of baka 

Disclaimer: if you’ve already read our guide to the Japanese alphabets, these different spellings of baka will look familiar to you. But if not, it’s worth taking some time to cover the basics before you dive in!

As we mentioned earlier, baka is usually written in kanji as 馬鹿

You may also see it written in hiragana, where you’d write ばか: 

ば か

ba ka

Or, less commonly (for emphasis), in katakana as バカ:

バ カ

ba ka

If you’re deep into the internet, you may have also seen baka written as ヴァカ or βακα, but those are… less correct. 

In terms of pronunciation, ‘a’ is always pronounced ah, as in “bah, humbug!”, so baka is pronounced simply:

bah kah

Baka. Easy, right?

Origins

Now that we’ve covered every possible meaning of baka and its pronunciation, let’s ponder this: where did the word baka come from? Well, the truth is, we don’t know. There are several different origin stories.

One thing we do know is that the word first appeared in writing as bakamono (馬鹿), an insult loosely meaning foolish man, in 1342 as part of the Taiheiki, a Japanese historical epic.

Before that, it gets a little murkier.

It’s generally believed that baka came either from Sanskrit as a loanword via Buddhist monks (they do tease, those monks!), or from Classical Chinese – which comes with a little bit of folklore. See, the kanji characters used to make the word baka are: 

馬 鹿

ba ka

horse deer

Now, many different kanji characters could be used to write the syllables ba and ka, so why choose these two?

Well, there’s a Chinese phrase, “to point at a deer and call it a horse” – meaning to willfully misrepresent something. It comes from a story that dates back to sometime around 220 B.C. 

The story goes that a powerful eunuch named Zhao Gao wanted to take control of the Qin government. To test loyalties, he brought a deer to the Emperor and called it a horse in front of several government officials. The Emperor, of course, noticed that it was, in fact, a deer. 

Anyone who said that it was a horse got to join the treasonous plot, while everyone who agreed with the Emperor that it was a deer mysteriously wound up dead. Not a great day to be a very literal person. There are many similar stories from other empires over the years, so who knows how true it is, but the story certainly stuck – and many think that it formed the basis for baka being written as “horse deer”.

We may never know the full origin story. The truth could well be some combination of these two things colliding to form the word as we know it today. 

But what we do know is that baka has been around for a long time – and it isn’t going anywhere.

And that’s everything you need to know about the meaning of baka

Now you know the horse from the deer! Be smart (and not willfully ignorant) about how you use this phenomenal vocabulary power.


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Emily Duncan is a Canadian writer, comedian and avid language learner currently based in New York City. Emily’s first language is English, she’s fluent in French, speaks some Irish, and is currently learning Japanese and Spanish. Emily loves dogs, iced coffee, and cooking experiments.