Yabai!(やばい): A Common Japanese Phrase to Show How Cool You Are : So, you want to speak more like the locals, do you? Today, we’re going to make you cool by exploring the slang word 「やばい」(yabai) and showing you its myriad of usages. Let’s get crackin’!

Essential Japanese slang スラング that everyone should know! | Learn Japanese Online
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Yabai!(やばい): A Common Japanese Phrase to Show How Cool You Are

Looking 「やばい」up in the dictionary will produce a number of results. 

Risky, dangerous, amazing, cool, insane, crazy, extreme…

Where did this word come from, and how did it take on so many different meanings?

The Origin of Yabai

Yabai is an adjective that comes from the root verb 危ぶむ (ayabumu). If we take a closer look at the kanji for 危ぶむ, we see that it is made up of three different radicals. 

勹  + 卩  +  厂  =  危

勹 (hou) is the radical for wrapping,卩 (setsu) is the radical for seal, and  厂 (kan) is the radical for trailing cliff. Put them together, and you get the kanji 危 (ki), which means “dangerous.” This kanji then acts as an anchor to the word 危ぶむ, which means “to be afraid of…,” “to have misgivings about….,” “to be apprehensive of…,” “to fear,” etc. 

It is believed that the word “yabai” has been in use since the Edo period. It was originally used as a code word among thieves and criminals to indicate that an act was too risky to pursue.

The Modern Use of Yabai

In the United States about 30 years ago (give or take a decade), all of a sudden everything that was “good” was now “bad.”

“Wow, man, is that your new car? That’s so bad!”

Of course, the person saying this didn’t mean “bad” literally. They were using “bad” as a slang term to mean “wonderful; deeply satisfying; stunningly attractive or stylish; sexy” (Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang).

The same happened for the word “yabai” in Japanese. It still retains its literal meaning from the Edo period (“dangerous” or “risky”), but it has evolved to the point where it can also be used as a slang term to mean the opposite. In this sense, it has a closer resemblance to 凄い (sugoi, great). To show you how this works, let me first show you how “yabai” is used in its literal sense:  

消防士はやばい仕事です。
Shouboushi wa yabai shigoto desu.
A firefighter is a dangerous job.
やばい、終電!
Yabai, shuuden!
Omg! My last train!
やばい!カギを車の中に閉じ込めちゃった。
Yabai! Kagi wo kuruma no naka ni tojikomechatta.
Shit! I locked my keys in the car!
やばい!今日試験があるのを忘れちゃった!
Yabai! Kyou shiken ga aru no wo wasurechatta!
Son of a b@#$%! I forgot there was an exam today!
めちゃくちゃやばい
Mechakucha yabai!
It's so bad...
この食べ物やばい!
Kono tabemono yabai!
This food is delicious!
やばい!遅刻する!
Yabai Chikokusuru.
OMG,I'm going to be late.

However, at some point in time—like with our example of “bad”—the Japanese youth all got together and decided, “Let’s use this word to mean the opposite of what it says in the dictionary!” Therefore, as a modern slang term, it takes on the meaning of “amazing; cool; insane; crazy; extreme.” Here is an example:

あれはあなたの車?やばいね!
Are wa anata no kuruma? Yabai ne!
Is that your car? Yowza!

People also pronounce “yabai in a few different ways according to preference in order to underscore that they’re using casual speech. Here are a few different ways to pronounce it:

やばっ!

Yaba! (The small つ means that the final “a” sound is clipped short)

やベー!

Yabee!

やベっ! 

Yabe! (The final “e” sound is clipped)

かおりちゃん、今日メイクやばっ!
Kaori-chan, kyou meiku yaba!
Kaori, your make-up today is like wooooow!
ヘリコプターで学校へ行くの、やべーなあ!
Herikoputaa de gakkou e iku no, yabee naa!
Going to school by helicopter is like wooooow!
このラーメン美味しいよね!やべっ!
Kono raamen oishii yo ne! Yabe!
This ramen is God in my mouth! Like woooow!

Yabai” is also commonly used in its negative form as a rhetorical question.

この映画エロい。ヤバくない?
Kono eiga eroi. Yabakunai?
This movie is so sexual. Should we really be watching this?
私は女の子。あなたは男の子。同じ部屋に泊まるの、ヤバくない?
Watashi wa onna no ko. Anata wa otoko no ko. Onaji heya ni tomaru no, yabakunai?
I’m a girl. You’re a guy. Isn’t staying in the same room a little…you know…?

Yabai” can also be used in conjunction with other adjectives and verbs to indicate emphasis. Since “yabai” is used as a slang word in these instances, it does not follow conventional grammatical rules. 

この芸能人はやばい面白い!
Kono geinojin wa yabai omoshiroi!
This performer is f@%$#&* funny!

(Notice that we don’t say the grammatically correct やばく面白い [yabaku omoshiroi] because it doesn’t sound natural. This is because when people are using slang, they don’t tend to stop and make sure they’re obeying grammatical rules.)

今日やばい眠い!
Kyou yabai nemui!
I’m sooooooooo sleepy today!
あなたはやばい自撮り撮ってるね!
Anata wa yabai jidori totteru ne!
You take a f@#$ ton of selfies, don’t you!

In Conclusion

Yabai” Is a common word used in Japanese. Its dictionary meaning is “dangerous” or “risky.” However, it can also be used as a slang term to mean “amazing; cool; insane; crazy; extreme…” It can also be used together with adjectives and verbs for emphasis, like “so” in “so funny” and “so cool.” “Yabai,” when used as slang, does not need to abide by grammatical rules.

Now that you’ve learned a new common phrase, it’s time to get out there and practice! Tell your speaking partner how awesome or cool something is by using the word “yabai.” You should also try using it in its literal sense to ensure that you completely understand its meaning in all contexts.

Yabai ne ! Remember, practice makes perfect, so get out there and practice, practice, practice!

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