While watching a detective show (相棒) there was a scene where the younger detective was telling the older detective (水谷豊) some obscure tidbit about butterflies. Impressed by the fact the older detective didn’t know that piece of trivia, he continued by counting a group of butterflies to make a new point. He said:
このごひきは・・・ As for these five butterflies…
The older detective stopped him and said, 正式には、蝶は「ひき」ではなく「頭」で数えるんですよ。Officially, you should use ‘tou’ instead of ‘hiki’ to count butterflies.
Well, that just got my goat. How could that be? A butterfly is counted using the same counter as an elephant?!
I’ve always thought 頭 was reserved for large animals. While this appears to be true for the most part, insects are supposed to use 頭 also. However, apparently, most Japanese count butterflies with 匹.
Here is an interesting essay from a bug guy (fancy term for entomologist). He argues it should be fine to count butterflies with 匹 since this counting problem is really only found in 漢字文化圏 (countries that use kanji) and just about everyone says 匹 anyway:
This reminds me of the time in a Junior High class when I mixed up a counter. I can’t remember what mistake I made but the teacher corrected me and told the class they shouldn’t laugh since the counting system was so complex in Japanese. Then she turned to the student laughing the loudest and asked, “How do you count books?”
The student instantly said いっぽん、にほん・・・ ippon, nihon…
Of course it should be 一冊、二冊 issatsu, nisatsu
Poor kid. In his defense it was kind of a trick question since book is ‘ほん’
匹 hiki – used to count most animals
頭 tou – used to count large animals and apparently… butterflies
相棒 aibou Partners – I love this show. Mizutani Yutaka is the greatest! He is the definition of 慇懃無礼 ingin burei – uses overly polite to the point of being rude! (Maybe I will make a post about this later…) Link
このごひきは・・・ kono gohiki wa As for these five butterflies…
seishiki ni wa, chou wa ‘hiki’ dewa naku ‘tou’ de kazoerun desu yo.
Officially, you should use ‘tou’ instead of ‘hiki’ to count butterflies.