What’s the meaning of “Yabai”(やばい)?

If You were standing in the middle of an area where japan’s youth pass their time, such as Shibuya or Harajuku. You would hear a myriad of words that generally don’t appear in a Japanese textbook, such as “Maji,” “Kusa,” or “Gachi” between others. But one word that you would undoubtedly hear a lot would be “Yabai.”

 Origins of Yabai

 In reality, no one knows for sure the origins of Yabai, but there are various theories as to where it came from.

 One of the most accepted origins for “Yabai” is that criminals that were incarcerated used to call the prison guards with the word “Yaba” (厄場). So, when they were doing something illicit while in prison, the one on the lookout would say “Yaba!” when a guard was approaching them. Then, when those people would get out of jail, they would start to call something that they wanted to avoid “yaba” (厄場) out of habit.  The word itself had a purpose of being vague so that the guards or people not associated with them wouldn’t understand. In truth, the word itself only meant “dangerous spot.” Then, little by little, it would start to change, and somewhere in between, it would take an adjective form and become the present “Yabai” (やばい).

 Another explanation is that it comes from “Yaba” (矢場). It was how the objective of an arrow attack during an encounter would be called during the Edo period. So, if someone were to approach the “Yaba” unknowingly, it could mean they would find themselves in a precarious situation.  Then, it would be used figuratively to denote any dangerous place or situation as that situation would mean that they would enter the “Yaba.” And sooner than later, it is expected it would become an adjective to denote something precarious as “Yabai.”

What is the meaning of Yabai, and is it good or bad?

 Yabai is commonly written as “ヤバイ” or “やばい” based on preference. Still, in the Kanto region, it is commonly written in hiragana. In the present times, “Yabai” does not have any specific Kanji associated with it.

Based on the possible explanations of the origin of “Yabai,” one could think that the word is used when something is terrible or precarious. Right? Well, according to various dictionaries and specifically, in this case, the Goo Dictionary, “Yabai refers to a precarious situation, similar to dangerous” (*).

[*: https://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/word/%E3%82%84%E3%81%B0%E3%81%84/]

But, in contrast to that, to the younger Japanese generation, “Yabai” presents a whole variety of meanings such as:

  • Bad
  • Precarious
  • Weird
  • Cute
  • Delicious
  • Beautiful
  • Crazy
  • Amazing
  • Fun
  • Interesting
  • Delight
  • Good looking
  • Moving
  • Miserable
  • Sorrowful
  • Sad
  • Etc.

 In a nutshell, pretty much any emotion can be “Yabai”!  It all depends on the context of when it is used and its intonation.

 Some Japanese linguistics even consider it a filler word for when you don’t know how to react to something.

 The only problem with Yabai is that the age gap between people changes its meaning quite a lot, so it is important to know where and with whom “Yabai” can be used.

 Where and when can I use “Yabai” ?

As it is to be expected from such an ambiguous word, we don’t recommend using “Yabai” in any written format besides SNS. And we recommend avoiding it even more when it is in a formal situation, such as talking with a teacher or in a work environment. It is also good to remark once more that it is a recent occurrence that “Yabai” now encapsulates that whole myriad of meanings, so using “Yabai” with older people might make them more confused or even make them think that there is a dislike in the thing “Yabai” is directed at. So please don’t be saying that the delicious food made by a sweet old lady is “Yabai”!

Instead, we recommend using “Yabai” when talking to friends in an informal situation or what is more, if you don’t know how to express something, just say it is “Yabai.”

The grammar of “Yabai.”

Conjugation

Yabai, as it ends in “I” takes the standard I-keijoshi form for its conjugation.

Neutral やばい (Yabai)

Negative やばくない (Yabakunai)

Past やばかった (Yabakatta)

Past – Negative やばくなかった (Yabakunakatta)

It should be noted that the different conjugations of Yabai don’t work the same as an ordinary verb, at least in everyday conversation.

The use of Yabai in negative almost always is just used as a “ Isn’t that crazy?” kind of expression, so, even when used in negative, it still conveys the same meaning. So, when saying that something is not “Yabai,” instead of using “Yabai,” In negative, one should use another word to reject it. One example would be 「いや、普通だよ」(Iya, futsuu dayo) “Nah, that is normal.”  

The past tense of Yabai is not commonly used and is mainly used when explaining a “Yabai” situation to a third party.  

The past-negative of Yabai is rarely used.

Variations

Yabai can also take simple variations in Japanese, just to give it a little “twist.”

  •                やばっ!Yaba! The last 「い」“i” gets shortened. This is typically used to imply surprise.
  •                やべー。Yabee. The 「ばい」“bai” part changes for a 「べー」“ bee”, this used to imply a hint of astonishment and that you are still “processing” what was said to you.
  •                やべっ! Yabe! The「ばい」”bai” part gets changed for a 「べっ」”be” cut sharp at the end. This is a combination of astonishment and surprise being used together.

It is also typical for やばい “Yabai” to be followed by a じゃん? “Jan?”, this is used to add a “no?” “Isn’t it?” at the end to it. Usually, this is answered simply with another affirmation (うん”Un” (yes)、そう “Sou” (yup)、まじで “Majide” (Really)) followed by ヤバイ “Yabai” again.

A: ヤバイじゃん? (Yabai Jan?) Isn’t it crazy?

B: うん、まじでやばいよ!(Un, Majide Yabai yo!) Yes, It really is crazy!

Examples uses

Below are some examples of how “Yabai” is being used in everyday life 

  • Positive uses
    • 可愛い過ぎてヤバイ! (Kawaii sugite Yabai!) This Is too cute I can’t!
    • やばいくらい楽しい!( Yabai Kurai Tanoshii!)  This is so fun it could be dangerous!
    • ヤバイ! めっちゃかっこいい! ( Yabai Meccha Kakkoii!)       Omg! So cool!!
  • Negative uses
    • やばい!もう時間だ!(Yabai! Mou Jikan da! )          Omg! It is time already!
    • ヤバイ! 怒られる! (Yabai okorareru!)               Omg! They are going to get so mad at me!
    • あいつと関わるとヤバイことになるよ。( Aitsu to kakawaru to Yabai koto ni Naru yo)         If you become acquainted with that person, it will not end well.
  • Others
    • ホンマヤバくね? ( Honma Yabakune? )  Isn’t that like crazy?        ※ The feeling could change depending on the context. This phrase could be used in a positive meaning as well as in a negative meaning.
    • やばっ!コイツ天才かもしれん! ( Yaba! Koitsu Tensai Kamoshiren!) Oh god! This person might be a genius! ※ It is one of the few examples of direct use of sarcasm in a similar way as in the west. This phrase is generally used as a sarcastic way of saying that someone did something outrageous or silly, such as an average person wouldn’t think of doing it.
    • まじでやばかったよ!   It really was crazy!

Summary

Yabai is a word used informally in everyday life, and while it doesn’t really have a specific meaning. Yabai can be used in a myriad of situations to convey a myriad of feelings, from happiness to sadness; it also helps that its grammar only gives it an even more significant leeway to be used as a filler word. So next time you are chatting with some friends in Japanese, try to include “Yabai” in your repertoire of words. Don’t be scared to use it a ton, as each time you use it, and it could have a different meaning! So please embrace Yabai and make your spoken Japanese a little bit more informal and less textbook-like.

In the end, we can just say that “Yabai” is really “Yabai”!

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ABOUTこの記事をかいた人

Hello, My name is Alejandro H. I am an international student currently residing in the Tochigi prefecture and majoring in Biological Engineering. My hobbies round from cycling, traveling, practicing martial arts to studying languages and cooking. And have always been intrigued by the singularity of the Japanese culture and language. In my opinion, to be able to understand a culture; the two best ways is through its idioms and its culinary delights!  When it comes to the Japanese language, my curiosity has brought me to study the different origins and ideas conveyed through those now considered normal or even filler words in everyday Japanese, such as greetings and slangs. In addition to my ample variety of hobbies and tastes, I am always open to interact with new people and their way of seeing and living the world.