Obamu: Obama gets his own (imaginary?) verb

Obamu: Obama gets his own (imaginary?) verb

There's been a lot of buzz about a new verb based on Barack Obama's name, but we don't uncover any evidence of actual usage
The spelling of 'obamu' uses katakana characters for the 'oba' (オバ)and hiragana for the 'mu' (む) -- a common mixed-alphabet construction for recent verb forms.

In 1992, shortly after getting trounced by Emperor Akihito in tennis, the first President Bush went to a state dinner in Tokyo and made world headlines by throwing up. Though the event has faded from memory, there was apparently once a word, "bushu suru," meaning "to do the Bush thing" -- i.e. vomit in public.

Three administrations later, it looks as though another American president has been honored with an eponymous entry in the Japanese lexicon -- this time under far more favorable circumstances. Bill Sakovitch wrote on his Ampontan blog last month about recent sightings of the Japanese verb "obamu" (オバむ), meaning "to proceed optimistically despite challenging obstacles."

The word is first and foremost a pun on the verb "kobamu" (拒む), meaning "to refuse, reject." Obamu is essentially a proposed antonym for this negatively nuanced verb.

Sakovitch saw it defined and promoted on the Teachers Network in Kitakyushu, a mailing list at Kyoto University and a single tweet on Twitter. Since his post, "obamu" has ricocheted around the American blogosphere -- from James Fallows on "The Atlantic" website, who wrote that the word "has gained currency among some Japanese youths," to George Stephanopoulos' ABC News blog George's Bottom Line to the "New York Times" language blog, Schott's Vocab.

Meanwhile Japanese bloggers picked up on the story, quoting material Sakovitch had quoted, but offering an important extra tidbit: None of them (nor their friends) had ever heard it in use. Not one. "I swear nobody uses this word," one blogger wrote.

Canvassing for 'obamu' usage

Following the lead of local bloggers, I conducted my own informal study to see how many Japanese native speakers in my orbit had gotten wind of "obamu." Since it is supposedly "in vogue" among college students, I asked ninety of the 18-20 year olds who I teach at a university in Kansai if they had come across the word. No one had. Then I sent out an e-mail to a slew of twenty-to-fiftysomething Japanese speakers ... and got the same result.

"Obamu" may very well be the little word that could, just needing a little time and nurturing before it catches on. But a few enthusiastic voices on the internet aren't enough to lift its status to wordhood. For the moment, "obamu" may have to be filed under the same category as "bushu suru" -- which no one in my survey recognized either -- a cute idea, but hardly one that deserves to be called a "popular word in use."

There seems to be a lot of optimism attached to this "obamu." But, so far, at least, a few too many obstacles to overcome.