"Genkai," a groundbreaking modern Japanese dictionary compiled single-handedly by Fumihiko Otsuki (1847-1928), took 16 years to complete.

Otsuki's toughest challenge lay in deciding which new words to include and which to leave out. New words and expressions were being added to the Japanese language rapidly in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) as he beavered away on the mighty project.

The new words Otsuki put in his lexicon included "jitensha" (bicycle), "peke" (no good) and "subarashi" (splendid), while "enyukai" (garden party) and "suteki" (nice) were among those he rejected, according to "Kotoba no Umi e" (To the sea of words), a biography of Otsuki by Hiroshi Takada.

Otsuki defined "peke" as "a corruption of a foreign word, meaning 'no good,' that is used in the Yokohama Foreign Settlement." This is an example of a neologism born from Japan's contact with the outside world.

The challenge Otsuki faced in selecting new expressions to include in his Meiji Era dictionary was probably just as daunting as it is today. The compilers of the Japanese dictionary "Kojien," which is now being revised for the first time in 10 years, have decided to add "anzen shinwa" (safety myth), "konkatsu" (spouse hunting) and "charai" (frivolous). But they rejected "tsundere" (a mixed attitude of aloofness and affection) and "guguru" ("Google" used as a verb, as in doing an Internet search).

I am sure many other contemporary expressions were considered, and then left out.

"Yabai," slang for "dangerous," has come to mean something quite different over the last few years. Nowadays, young people exclaim "yabai" when something good happens.

Kojien now defines yabai as synonymous with "almost becoming hooked (on something)." But I wonder if this definition will stick, as my sense is that yabai is more of an interjection among young people.

The planned circulation of the revised "Kojien" is said to be a mere 10 percent of its peak level. In this day of free Internet search engines, dictionaries are becoming practically redundant, and even the digital version of "Kojien" fails to compensate for the paltry sales of the print version.

I wonder how long Kojien revisions can continue in pace with changing Japanese vocabulary, and this worries me a bit.

In addition to Otsuki's "Genkai," other top-tier Japanese dictionaries include "Daijirin" and "Daijisen." The kanji Chinese character for "kai" in "Genkai" stands for the sea, the "rin" in "Daijirin" denotes a forest and the "sen" means fresh water.

Each suggests the broadness and depth of nature, and I can only hope these dictionaries will avoid attrition and continue to protect our language.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 27

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.