The meaning of chibi: is it cute or insulting?

November 10, 2023

What is chibi? First, the short answer:

In general conversation, chibi is the Japanese slang term for short or little, and implies cuteness. It’s most commonly used when talking to or about children, but has a wide variety of applications and can be insulting if used in the wrong context.

In anime and manga, it refers specifically to caricatures of popular characters (also called “SD” or “Super Deformed”), where they’re made to look short and cute, with large heads and simplified, exaggerated features. This is a positive association for the word.

In daily use outside of anime, however, the word has a somewhat negative connotation, because it comes from the word for wearing down a pencil or calligraphy brush. You’ll see it in phrases and verbs – chibi chibi, for example, means ‘bit by bit’, like how one sips a beer that they’re nursing, or wears down an eraser with rubbing. 

It can be used to refer to things, animals and people. However, like calling someone “short stuff”, “stubby” or “tiny”, it can be insulting, so it should really be reserved for close friends… and they still might not like it.

Oh, that’s all you needed to know?

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Looking for a deep dive? Here’s the long answer:

Chibi in context: wise words from our resident Japanese expert

It’s a word that describes someone (or something) small. It can be endearing when treating smallness as a positive, but if it’s used in a negative way, then it’ll be offensive. I remember, when I was in secondary school, we had to do a group dance performance as part of a PE lesson. By coincidence, one group was made up of the shortest girls in the class. They named their group Chibi-chans, and we all laughed – but not unkindly. In that context, it was funny and cute. 

That said, it comes from the verb chibiru, meaning “to wear away”, like with heels or pencils. So the word can carry the association of being a bit sad and miserable.”

Ancient origins of chibi

Despite being considered a slang word, the word actually comes from classical Japanese. 

Language nerd corner
Classical Japanese, or kobun (old writing), is the literary form of the language that developed during the Heian period (794–1185). It was based on what was then spoken Japanese. It was still commonly used for literary writing and official documents in Japan into the twentieth century. Eventually, writers started using a written language closer to modern spoken Japanese, and classical Japanese went out of style. It was officially replaced with modern spoken Japanese in the years after World War II.

In short (pun intended), the word started life as tsubi 粒び, a noun meaning “little, rounded thing”. Tsubi became tsubu 禿ぶ, a verb meaning to be worn down or to have sharp edges dulled by time. Tsubu (禿ぶ) then became chibiru (禿びる) – same meaning, different reading of 禿 – and the verb chibiru stuck.

Chibiru the verb then became chibi the adjective (making, one might note, the word chibi itself a chibi chibiru).

By the mid-1700s, chibi was in use in phrases like the onomatopoeia chibi-chibi ちびちび meaning “little by little” or “bit by bit”, especially in the context of wearing something down or removing bits of it – slowly sipping a drink being the most common example. You’d also see it in compound nouns, like chibifude 禿 筆 (formerly a worn-down calligraphy brush, now also used to humbly refer to one’s own writing, suggesting it isn’t quite up to par).

It started being used as a way to describe things at the turn of the twentieth century, and its use was extended to small and cute people and animals in the 1940s. And thus did the word come to be. Whew.

Use in anime and manga

All of that language history aside, how did we get to the very specific drawing style of cute anime chibi you see today? It started with fan art! 

In anime and manga, if you don’t know, the word refers to a specific style of super-cute characters with giant heads, like so:

If you want to get technical, chibi characters usually have between a 1:1 and 4:1 body-to-head ratio with rounded body parts, giant eyes, and no nose – designed specifically for maximum cute-osity, if you will. They frequently appear in fan art, toys and in comedic moments meant to exaggerate a character’s emotions or express inner thoughts. 

The style started with fan art of sci-fi anime in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The fan art was sent into magazines, and the editors liked it. A number of well-known magazines ended up publishing serialised comics in the style, which in turn made the style even more popular. Animators and illustrators then started including it in their less formal work, and from there it was ultimately put into use by the anime production and manga publishing companies themselves. With frequent use, it was standardised into the uniform chibi style you see today.

In manga and anime, the word has a positive connotation. It’s fun! It’s cute! It’s… not quite the same when you talk to real people. Speaking of which…

Real-world application (tread carefully, chibi traveller!)

As you might expect, calling someone short, stubby, and worn-down doesn’t really win over a lot of new friends. While the word has cutesy connotations in anime, real people don’t typically like to be called teeny tiny, and the vibe of the word is more negative when used to address or refer to a person. That said, there are exceptions!

You can absolutely use chibi to refer to cute little animals and objects. Short little cactus? Chibi. New kitten as round as it is tall? Totally chibi. Toddlers that don’t know what you’re saying? They can be chibi, too.

However, while some people will use the word on its own to refer to any child, but generally it’s advisable to only use it refer to your own child (or toddler-charge, for all you babysitters out there), and add a little extra politeness when referring to other people’s children. Check out the chart below if you’re looking for some playground-appropriate options.

You can also use it to playfully refer to yourself if you happen to be on the smaller and cuter side. But that’s about where the polite uses of chibi end. 

We’ve included some more insulting options below, just so you know what to look out for and what not to say. We know you’d never want to use something like this for evil… right?

Worth noting: If you’re just looking to call someone cute, it isn’t your best option. How about one of these compliments instead?

  • Kawaii – cute
  • Suteki – interesting, beautiful
  • Jouzu – well done, good job, you’re good at this
  • Sugoi – amazing, terrific
  • Yasashii – kind, compassionate

Handy chibi word-use chart

Least insulting 😇Proceed with cautionMost insulting 😈
Chibi + animals & objectsChibi for toddlersIn phrases & slangChibi alone Chibi + personChibi + added insult
chibifude worn-down calligraphy brush

chibi-onigiri cute little onigiri

cute little puppy
little child

chibi-chan ochibi-chan chibi-sanochibi-san
little child(more respectful), also good for affectionately teasing younger and smaller family members

group of little kids
little child (slang)

chibi mama child pretending to be a mum, or the mum of little children
be used safely to affectionately refer to your own small child or yourself, possibly with close friends, but not with strangers (unless you’re looking for a fight)
short man

short woman

short old man
little pig 
🐶🍓📺👶🏻👧🏾 🧒🏼👶🏻👩‍👧🧒🏼👯‍♀️🤷‍♂️😬🚨🚨🚨🤬🤬🤬


And that’s the full story

Now you know the meaning of the word and so much more! 

You’re ready to face the world, armed with tons of facts about chibi and a few new insults we know you’re totally not going to use. You’re so yasashii, after all.

How about we keep this learning going? 

Chibi is just one word – why not learn a few more? Studies show learners who use Busuu progress toward their learning goals 4x faster than those who learn the traditional way.

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