The appearance of new words is not the only way that language changes. Sometimes, a word already in existence acquires a new usage. A sociologist recently caused quite a stir when he declared, “half-Japanese people sure seem to deteriorate (rekka) quickly” on a television program. One of the others on the program responded with, “I’m pretty sure ‘rekka’ is a word you use to describe objects.” But is it really incorrect in Japanese to use the word rekka to describe a person’s looks rather than a physical object?
Let’s take a closer look at what the word rekka actually means. The authoritative Japanese dictionary Nihon Kokugo Daijiten defines it as “a drop in material quality, function, or level as a result of changes occurring over time and the like.” In the television program, the commentator was pointing out that the person’s looks had faded as he had aged—which is fairly close to the definition of “a drop in level.” And yet, Japanese speakers still feel some awkwardness about using the term to describe a person’s physical appearance.
Our next step may be looking to see whether the word rekka is actually being used to describe people’s looks. One of the best ways to see how words and expressions are being used in a language is to consult a corpus. A corpus is a compilation of materials put together for the purpose of linguistic research. If we do a search on the lookup site for the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese (BCCWJ) (Shonagon), we can easily check the usage of particular Japanese words and expressions. When I did a search for rekka, I got 542 hits. (Note that Shonagon only displays a maximum of 500 search results, and because they are character string results, the search engine also returned one instance where rekka was being used as part of a larger compound). Looking closer at the results, we see several examples of rekka being used in the phrase rekka-uran (depleted uranium, as in “depleted uranium shells”) as well as alongside terms like “variation,” “discoloration” or “fading,” “broken,” and “damaged.” The things described as having deteriorated or been subject to rekka were diverse—from rubber and plastic to metals, alcohol, oils, fuel, batteries, clothing, printed materials, soil, and more. Rekka was also used to indicate the decline of abstract qualities such as function, vision, sound quality, picture quality, communications quality, color, taste, earning potential, business conditions, culture, and spirit. So while the corpus tells us that the word rekka is not exclusively reserved to express concrete phenomena, it also tells us that using it to describe a person’s looks is extremely rare. Of the 542 usage examples, only three pertained to a person and two (twice in the same context) to a person’s looks.
I feel like the pro tennis player Maria Sharapova isn’t as beautiful as she once was. Or is it just me?
Really? You may have just caught her at a moment when she was showing her age. You know non-Japanese tend to deteriorate [rekka] more quickly. The tennis player Martina Hingis was a beautiful Akane Oda lookalike when she was younger, but she’s deteriorated [rekka] a lot faster than Oda.
(Yahoo! Chiebukuro 2005)
If we do a general web search for the term rekka, one of the top hits is a page that uses the word to describe an actor’s looks. If we search within newspaper sites, however, we find a lineup of examples much like the ones returned from the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese—with virtually none of them referring to a person’s physical appearance. Our inquiry so far suggests that it depends on the media that the word rekka is being used to describe looks. A general web search returns many examples of this new usage, indicating that the list of phenomena rekka can describe may be getting more inclusive. But the same time, we can also conclude from the possibility that there is a bias in the media in adopting this usage that people unfamiliar with this unconventional usage may still find it awkward when they encounter it in print or speech.