Being shy of doing bad things

Mom & Dad, don't smoke!

Mom,  Dad, don’t smoke!


As an English teacher

  1. I am called upon to explain a concept like shy &
  2. later I am again prodded for an answer regarding expressions in which the concept doesn’t seem to make sense in particular combinations (the so-called idioms), such as shy of.

We know what shy means, right?

We know that if “John is a shy person”, then John is probably not that forward coming, not out there.

We know that as native speakers of English, but why do we (also) have shy of?

Let’s say that some guy scored 20 points in a basketball game which was “shy of the previous record of 22”.

What does shy of mean here?

Of course, people will tell you it means

“short of [a number]: less than [a number], but pretty near it”.

But why do we have shy? Where is the person who is shy in this sentence? Was the basketball player shy and that’s why he didn’t score more? No, this kind of shy doesn’t (necessarily) involve a person.

The common theme we have here is that of

  1. something A tending to do something B (or somebody wanting to do something),
  2. but stopping short of reaching that something B (or stopping short of doing something).

So we have “near, but not quite”, which translates into physical space as fairly close values, where one is lower than the other.

That’s one way you can explain shy of:

You imagine a line on a graph which is curbing upwards but stops before it reaches a certain point.

Maybe somebody rang the bell and the basketball game ended and our player couldn’t get more points past 20.

We have a moment when something A is shy of (=less than) something B and you cannot go back and fix this to reach that something B.

“He stopped shy of saying you’re an idiot”.

He didn’t say it, but it was leading up there, the whole talk before that, he said everything except “you’re an idiot”.

We use a human-applicable adjective in combination with a preposition that shows us only belonging (and not direction) to develop a new meaning.

The lower value is part OF (“belongs TO”) the higher value, in the same way that 20 is part of 22, even if 20 is short of (=shy of) 22.

We have a leap of meaning and we don’t know exactly how this came about.

We don’t know about the first instance when somebody used it, but once people who heard it were able to say

“Okay, okay, I think I can grasp what you’re saying”,

then shy of became a very good shorthand to say “something nearly reached its target”.

What about short of? This has a similar meaning, but is there a difference?

Shy of sounds like it was closer and there was slightly more work to be done by the subject (more self-controlled), while short of seems to imply a greater gap and some external causes (i.e., another subject) which cut you short from reaching something:

“Ronaldo fan [was] stopped short of reaching her hero”.

We have this huge network of meanings developed in English, which (as English speakers) we can dig out as archaeologists would.

In Japanese the concept shy is usually rendered as hazukashii (=恥ずかしい) which also covers the concept of shame or shameful.

You could say for example “He engaged in an act that was hazukashii (=恥ずかしい)”. In this context you cannot use shy in English:

He engaged in a *shy act: He did it, then he was not shy, so you have to use shameful.

Why do we have this difference in Japanese? We also have a more lengthy translation of shameful in Shame-Worthy Act (hajiru beki koto 恥じるべきこと), but in Japanese shy and ashamed are grouped together (i.e., one word hazukashii  = 恥ずかしい):

“You should stop shy of doing it if you want to do something shameful”

says the Japanese ethic in this situation, whereas in English we have 2 different words which seem pretty distinct.

People have devoted entire books to discussing this difference (shame culture versus guilt culture).

Is Japan a culture where “being shy of doing shameful acts” is considered praiseworthy?

Is the Western culture one where we are encouraged to “be ashamed of our illegitimate desires” with no connection with the concept of shy?

In English we don’t educate our children to be “shy of doing BAD stuff”.

In English we teach children to be “ashamed if they do BAD stuff”.

On the other hand, in Japanese the concept shy is comfortably couched together with the concept ashamed:

A Japanese mother could scold her child saying

Hazukashii (=恥ずかしい). What you are doing is shameful; you should be shy of doing it”.

The moral lesson is linguistically encoded in the scolding, as it includes the path to be followed.

That’s the wrong path and you know it.

Both shy and ashamed seem to require that you feel a negative emotion (in NSM “feel something bad”); hajiru (=恥じる) would be the direct translation for ashamed, but this would be achieved in Japanese by triggering in the mind of the child a self-imposed reluctance in engaging in a certain act.

The hope here is that an adult could learn not to (choose to) do something BAD.

One of the strongest rebukes that somebody in Japan could level at another person who is also an adult would be a one-word sentence:

[You should be] Hazukashii (=恥ずかしい) [=You should be ashamed of yourself].

Unlike English this does not carry so much the implication of “being imposed on by ANOTHER”.

You might hear an old Japanese lady on the train who sees a young guy doing something idiotic like reading a porn magazine and the old lady would say “Hazukashii (=恥ずかしい)”.

He should be shy of doing this, right? That’s the emotion he should feel: ashamed. Not just the negative emotion but also shy as he should stop himself from doing this.

Perhaps he can do it at home, in privacy, but this is hazukashii (=恥ずかしい) right now.

In this example, the Japanese ethical system appears both self-reflective and oriented towards Others; perhaps it later becomes even more self-reflective as this person learns (hopefully) not to read porn magazines on the train without being told off by old ladies.

Let me finish by asking you to stop shy of doing things that will make you feel ashamed.

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