Be it the language that shapes the culture or the culture that forms the word, learn about Japanese culture through key words used in everyday speech.

犬も歩けば棒に当たる

Pronounced: Inu mo arukeba bo ni ataru
Kind of phrase: Japanese saying

What it implies

I recently visited my home country the Netherlands for the first time in almost 2 years. I had not spoken much Dutch since my last visit, which resulted in awkward language mistakes made by a native. Remembering sayings especially troubled me, and phrasing them wrong was found hilarious by my Dutch friends.
“Aren’t there any sayings in the Japanese language?” asked one of them.
“Oh yes there are” I answered, and of course I had to come with an example. The first Japanese idiom that struck my mind was 「犬も歩けば棒に当たる」 (Inu mo arukeba bo ni ataru), which can be literally translated as: “If a dog keeps walking, it will eventually bump into a stick / get hit by a stick”

This translation made my friends frown at me. They were obviously unable to understand what this saying could possibly imply.

“Well” I started to explain. “The walking dog is a metaphor of a person that acts and doesn’t sit still. Just as the dog bumps into a stick, something will happen to a person that acts too.”

“So basically this idiom tells people to sit still and don’t do anything so nothing bad will happen?”

“No, no” I shaked my head. “The opposite. Something good will happen eventually as long as you keep acting.”

“But how is bumping into or getting hit by a stick a good thing?”

Now it was my turn to frown. I had never thought about it, but of course bumping into a stick is not nice for a dog. Then how could this saying have come to life? It was time to consult Google sensei.

What it used to imply

Apparently, 犬も歩けば棒に当たる was originally used as what my friends first thought it was. A walking dog that bumps into or is hit by a stick is a metaphor of something unfortunate happening to a person that shows off too much or is too self-assertive. However, 当たる (ataru) which stands for “bumping into” or “getting hit by” in this sentence, is also often used for winning something, as in “hitting” the jackpot. Therefore, 当たる has a positive sound to it, despite the fact that the dog is being hit by a stick and not the jackpot. This is why the saying started to be used in a positive way more and more often, and its original meaning was slowly forgotten.

So there you have it, a great advice in life. If you want good things to happen, just keep on walking….and if something bad, a stick for example, stands in your way, just jump over it like this dog!

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