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Literally meaning dried fish woman, the popular slang 干物女 is used to call a woman in her twenties or older who, as nicely summarized in Wikipedia, has many of the following traits:

メールの返事が極端に遅い、短い (Her text replies are very slow and short.)

簡単な食事なら台所で立って食べる (If it is something simple, she will eat it standing in her kitchen.)

忘れ物を靴を履いたまま、膝立ちで部屋に上がり取りに行く (She will go to take forgotten stuff in her flat on her knees keeping the outdoor shoes in the air rather than put them off.)

休日はノーメイクでノーブラ (She won't put on her makeup and bra on nonworking days.)

半年ほど美容室に行っていない (She won't visit a beauty salon for half a year.)

冬場は毛の処理を怠る、又はしない (In winter she won't shave or wax her body hair properly or at all.)

1人で居酒屋に入れる (She has no problem going to a pub alone.)

最近ドキドキしていない (She rarely gets so excited that she experiences an increased heartbeat.)

What is the English equivalent? In other words, how are such women commonly or idiomatically called in English?


UPDATE: Following a valuable comment below, I would like to explain the common pattern. These traits come together for a reason. There is a psychological root cause. It is a permanent psychological state of mind that manifests itself in many forms such as those described above. Psychology is not a rational thing, so it is hard to describe that state of mind in well-defined rational terms. But look at the literal meaning. It is a dried fish, not a lively fish. It is like psychologically giving up in the most global sense. A dried fish woman finds many things to be 面倒臭い (bothersome, tiresome) and, as a result, does not do them. I think that inside her brain, a dried fish woman gets decreased positive rewards for doing good things and/or increased negative feelings from having to make efforts. Such a shift results in a dried fish woman electing not to do many things many other women do, as described above. A dried fish woman does not make efforts to find a significant other. It is not a conscious decision to never marry, but rather that she lacks a motivation to make efforts or finds relationships to be bothersome. As a dried fish is devoid of moisture, a dried fish woman is devoid of energy, motivation, feeling of love, etc. "Lazy" is a somewhat close term, but is too generic. The term "dried fish woman" is about a certain way of life described above and caused by a specific state of mind as explained above.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jul 17 '19 at 1:19

13 Answers 13

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Unfortunately, the best answer to your question is that, there is no single word or phrase for the kind of person defined by this idiom, which includes the kind of stereotypical behavior you describe. This is possibly due to cultural differences in what is expected of women, and partly due to the fact that it represents a kind of sexist pejorative commonly frowned on.

Which isn't to sat that this stereotype or the motivations for the behavior are unknown. Far from it. Both women and men who expect to get married, but who have reached a certain age without doing so, may adopt any number of compensatory behaviors to make up for their disappointment. What is different is the relatively young age at which a woman can be called a "dried fish" in Japan, and the way the woman's behaviors contrast with what is expected from Japanese women.

But before I dive into a discussion of that, let's go over some terms that have been traditionally used for unmarried women past a "certain age":

spinster, maiden aunt, old maid, bachelor woman, independent woman, "her own woman", "confirmed bachelorette", career woman,

and various others. Note the exact value of this "certain age" varies considerably. One person or group might consider a woman of, say, 29 to be well past marrying age, while another would consider her to be in her prime.

In any case, none of these terms presumes the kind of despondent behavior you describe in your question. Someone you might call a "maiden aunt", for example, may dote on her sibling's children and display a high degree of motivation to cook for them, buy them presents, and take care of her own appearance in order to look nice when she visits them. An "independent woman" may choose to focus entirely on her career, and spend a lot of effort and money on her appearance if she feels it necessary for her success (or simply enjoys doing so).

Moreover it can be awkward to use any of these terms based on what can be considered a "traditional women's role", in modern society that tries not to impose these kind of restrictions. For example consider the highly lauded Megan Rapinoe, the 34-year old, openly gay, currently unmarried, co-captain of the world champion U.S. Women's Soccer team. In almost any context, calling her something like a "spinster" would be taken as an offensive slur against her gender, her age, and her sexual orientation, as well as a deprecation of her choice to be a professional athlete.

I couldn't say what terms the Japanese might use to describe Rapinoe, and whether those terms would be offensive if translated, but my point is that it's difficult to move an idiom like "dried fish woman" outside of its roots in Japanese culture. The best you can do is to describe the woman's age and marital status separately from her behavior, and then use qualifiers like "it seems" or "from her perspective" to mitigate any possible offense. For example (incorporating Ben's answer):

She feels like she's an old maid who is never going to get married, and so nowadays can't be bothered to make an effort to maintain appearances.

Again you might wish for a simple answer to the question, but all of those (including most of the previous answers) would be inaccurate. Moreover the idiom itself is highly derogatory, and should be used very carefully in order to avoid causing unwanted offense.


(Edit) Let me address an objection to this answer:

To start off, there can be little argument that the direct translation of the idiom into English is highly derogatory. The only question is whether there is some mitigating factor when used in Japanese that makes it less offensive. In the comments, Mitsuko suggests:

the term is originally negative, but some woman call themselves in this way, with the message being, "it is my lifestyle and I am happy with it"

It's not uncommon to find people who are resigned to a particular lifestyle, and who choose to make the most of it. Nevertheless the kinds of behavior described as characteristic of "dried fish women" belie any sense of joy. I have to assume that "happy" means something more along the lines of "I can't complain" than "My life is just how I want it". The women aren't using 干物女 as a point of pride, but rather as a defensive rejection of the assumption that their lives are somehow incomplete -- even as they act in a way that makes it seem their lives aren't as fulfilling as they might wish.

Alternately, a woman might call herself a 干物女 in the same way she might call herself an "old maid", but this is ironic self-deprecation, not redefinition.

So I remain unconvinced that the term is anything but a negative slur against "older" Japanese women. It might come across as mild scorn in Japan, but over here there's really no way to soften the impact. You might think something like "independent woman" is a happy medium, but not when the subtext is "old maid".

Now, it would be different if Japanese women did things like proudly wear t-shirts with 干物女 printed on the front as defiance of stereotype and custom, in the same way women in the U.S. wear shirts saying "Nasty Woman" in defiance of Donald Trump. If that's the case, I'm willing to revise my answer.

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To let oneself go means to

fail to maintain an attractive physical appearance.

For the aspects that are physical, and the general "giving up" attitude, "she let herself go" fits quite nicely.

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    'let yourself go' captures as much as possible the cultural translation (in the US they tend to wear shoes inside no matter what so that can't correspond). However, it is not the right part of speech (you don't 'call' someone that; you just say 'She has let herself go'). Unfortunately, the problem with cultural translations is that not everything transfers. There's no implication of age (which is annoyingly inconsistent for descriptions of 'dried fish woman'). – Mitch Jul 15 '19 at 19:09
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I looked up this term in Japanese Wikipedia, which says:

干物女とは恋愛を放棄している、様々な事を面倒臭がり適当に済ませてしまう女性のこと。

If I'm getting the sense right, it means, roughly, "a woman who has abandoned love, and finds the various details of her life bothersome and handles them in a lazy or careless manner."

The article goes on to say that the term 干物女 comes from a manga series by Hiura Satoru, which has been adapted for television and film.

Certainly the exemplar of such a person exists in many cultures, but names like "dried fish woman" nevertheless will not translate effectively into other languages: the overtones simply head in the wrong direction. For example, in English referring to a woman as "dried up" would likely mean someone who is barren or post-menopause, etc., but it would not mean she has "abandoned love," at least not deliberately.

Additionally, the person illuminated in the manga series would have a number of overtones accessible only to readers of the series, further complicating the process of finding a good translation.

From what I'm hearing, I would call such a person "walled off" and would judge her very likely to be clinically depressed. But I can't think of a single really good term that has one foot in the Japanese and the other solidly in English.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jul 17 '19 at 1:20
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There is no direct equivalent phrase, in the sense that the exact list of qualities would not be associated with an English phrase. The connotation is also tricky - a connotative match would have to be both negative and reclaimed by some of these women. It is exceptionally unlikely that you'll find a denotative and connotative match to something so specific. Thus a translator would have to decide which sense to emphasize in a given situation.

For this answer, I focus on a match to the literal sense of the term, since the connotative match is so difficult. A more prosaic phrase that captures much of the literal meaning is independent woman: a woman who works and lives her life free of dependence on a relationship. If you are writing for translation today, the term would primarily be used for the more positive, reclaimed sense of the word dried fish woman - the ones who view such a woman as "rational self-sufficient loner women who live just for themselves." (Comment to question by Mitsuko, above.)


History

The term is present at least as far back as the 19th and early 20th centuries, where it referred to women who worked in factories, as teachers, or in other service jobs. This early letter in a periodical called The Texaco Star (1916) represents early stereotypes of such women that resemble what you list:

Economically the so-called independent woman is important and rates high. She earns money - that accounts for her rating. I wonder how many men enjoy working just for themselves? The independent woman does that. Sometimes she has parents or a husband to support, but for the most part she works for herself.

It turns out she's thirty years old or older.

I am speaking of the independent woman past thirty years of age, the ones who probably will be independent forever. One sees them by the thousands - well dressed, dependable -

They have a "dead look," attributed by the letter writer to lacking a husband or family to live for. So, at least in the phrase's early history, the idea that she has lost desire for men or family or life itself is present.

but the dead look in their eyes tells the discerning observer that the most of them would give away their wonderful independence in the twinkling of an eye for something real to live for. [...] I have met a great many of these women - stenographers, saleswomen, teachers, librarians - and it is the tragic truth that they are a restless and embittered class. A vast number of these decent, efficient women are real women; they have emotions and the right desire for a mate and a home. They have just been cheated of a woman's normal life, just as much as if they were medieval nuns or the victims of war.

The expression was also claimed as a label for the working woman. A periodical called The Independent Woman was published from 1920 to 1956, after which it changed its title to National Business Woman (source). The label was pragmatic - women who worked enjoyed economic independence. For some people this independence was negative because it separated women from traditional family structures. For other people this independence was liberating.


Usage Today

By the present day, an independent woman has become a more positive label in most contexts. Its negative qualities tend to survive in the prejudices of some commentators who believe that the so-called independence of such women is fake. For example, note the mingling of independence and negativity in these Urban Dictionary definitions and examples. Within the first entry, this sounds like the positive version of the independent woman:

A confident self motivated woman who takes responsibility for her actions and never blame the rest of the world for her mistakes or her downfalls. Her pride doesn't get in the way if she ever needs a helping hand.

But the definition author betrays prejudice in the example by writing about a woman who pretends to be independent but is actually lonely:

A women [sic], who is stubborn, rude, lonely and always saying that she is an independent woman, need to stop lying to herself and the people around her.

Meanwhile, this Wikipedia article sums up the expression's pop cultural history, and there are many more positive articles about the type like this one in the Huffington Post encouraging the independent woman.


Frequency

In terms of usage, this Google Ngram shows an uptick in usage after about 1980, whereas the near-synonym spinster (denoting an unmarried older woman) remains relatively stable. Meanwhile, the Corpus for Contemporary American English confirms 138 results for the phrase, with strong, fierce, and feminist all being common collocations. (Examples: "a strong independent woman," "a fiercely independent woman," "independent woman formed by the feminist struggles of the 1970s.")


So When Would You Use Independent Woman for Dried Fish Woman?

In one of the comments to your answer, you suggest that the label of the dried fish woman has been reclaimed by at least some women, who view independence from pursuing marriage and maintaining their appearance to be a positive step in their lives. For these women, independent woman would be an apt translation, representing a woman who does her own thing and earns her own way with less concern for appearances or depending on a marital partner.

For the more negative stereotype, independent woman would have once encompassed those negative qualities (a woman who has lost some of her spark because she is actually in need of a man whether she admits it or not), but today that usage only survives in rather misogynistic contexts like Urban Dictionary and in very traditionalist op-eds.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jul 17 '19 at 1:20
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The closest equivalent that comes to mind is "Cat Lady" or "Crazy Cat Lady" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_lady

The archetype is that of a womam who prefers the company of cats over that of a husband. It's a pejorative term, but I imagine so is "dried fish woman".

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    The 'crazy cat lady' is one who, perhaps, has become obsessed with mothering cats over mothering actual children, but it's only marginally related to what Mitsuko describes in the question. – Andrew Jul 14 '19 at 15:28
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In British English there are a number of idioms which capture the idea, in addition to Graham's excellent answer.

A person who has given up is somone who can't be bothered to make the effort, she's just let herself go.

  • Wow, she's really given up
  • She just doesn't make the effort any more.
  • She really can't be bothered, can she?
  • She's really let herself go, hasn't she?
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From the update in your question, it sounds to me like the "psychological root cause" for this sort of person is clinical depression. Therefore, I would describe such a person as either dysthymic, or, more commonly,

despondent

downcast or disheartened; lacking hope or courage; dejected

-Free Dictionary

While there are many synonyms, I am unaware of a gender-specific one. But for what it's worth, depression is under-reported in men.

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  • I think it's unfair to attempt a clinical diagnosis of the behavior described, especially a diagnosis that doesn't take cultural differences into account. At best this answer is a possible adjective for the behavior, but does not really answer the question. At worst it's inaccurate and misleading. – Andrew Jul 14 '19 at 15:30
  • I would have been fine if you had just used depression (or despondency) in its everyday use rather than trying to force some kind of clinical diagnosis on it. Turning it into something specifically medical is dangerous. It's fine to say you're feeling depressed. It's something altogether different to say that you suffer from clinical depression. – Jason Bassford Jul 15 '19 at 4:59
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Although it would be difficult to find a single word to describe all of these traits, I would think that the word spinster describes some of them fairly well. Specifically these:

休日はノーメイクでノーブラ (She won't put on her makeup and bra on nonworking days.)

(I first misread this as ノーライフ)

半年ほど美容室に行っていない (She won't visit a beauty salon for half a year.)

冬場は毛の処理を怠る、又はしない (In winter she won't shave or wax her body hair properly or at all.)

1人で居酒屋に入れる (She has no problem going to a pub alone.)

最近ドキドキしていない (She rarely gets so excited that she experiences an increased heartbeat.)

I think of a spinster as someone well over her twenties.

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    "Spinster" is not particularly common these days, at least not with its original meaning. In most cases the use is ironic, or analytical. It is perhaps the closed to the basic premise of "an older unmarried woman", but it is otherwise entirely neutral. A "spinster" does not necessarily display any of these behaviors -- any assumption that they do is entirely your own personal projection. – Andrew Jul 14 '19 at 16:30
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It seems that the term has already been adopted into English.

Wiktionary has the following entry:

Noun

dried-fish woman (plural dried-fish women)

(idiomatic, derogatory) A woman, especially a young one, who lacks a significant other.

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    This answer could be improved by showing evidence of practical use, which the wiktionary entry does not. It may be telling that the audio file in the wiktionary entry is from Australia. Maybe it has entered only Australian English, which is after all the one geographically closest to Japan? – gerrit Jul 14 '19 at 11:12
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    No one here uses that term. It's incredibly sexist and would get the speaker into some trouble without first framing it appropriately -- and even then it's iffy. – Andrew Jul 14 '19 at 15:21
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    This is just totally wrong. – Fattie Jul 14 '19 at 17:56
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    Whether or not someone added a dictionary entry for it, it's not an understood term. I would have imagined "dried fish woman" to mean a woman who sells dried fish, or that it's an insult calling her unattractive. – Boann Jul 14 '19 at 19:27
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Based on that description, I'd have to say the closest English word is

slob

a person who is lazy and has low standards of cleanliness.

An older word for women, not usually used these days, would be

slattern

a dirty, untidy woman.

A possible adjective would be

slovenly

(especially of a person or their appearance) untidy and dirty.

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  • Nice answer. Probably the best choice would be "slovenly woman". – Ben Jul 14 '19 at 10:44
  • A nice adjective to describe some of the behavior, but which ignores the root cause and so fails to really answer the question asked. – Andrew Jul 14 '19 at 15:22
  • @Andrew I disagree, the root cause is psychological, so can't ever be known, but only inferred. For the mode of being and behaviour, this is the rock solid correct answer. I have only one upvote to give, and I have given it. This is the best answer. – Ben Jul 14 '19 at 17:48
  • @Ben actually I thought your answer is much closer to the mark. Someone can be a "slob" for no reason, but you don't "give up making an effort" without due cause. – Andrew Jul 14 '19 at 23:02
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Though non of what you listed equals this in an american English culture, as some are normal {most women I know don't go to beauty salons that often, going out drinking alone could mean there looking for someone, eating well standing would probably mean there to busy, not taking shoes off aren't really an issue here. The make up would depend on how much your talking about really, not shaving would be odd, and no bra would just be tacky, but I mean there are plenty of women that do that to get guys attention).

But based on other comments you have on the thread here, I'd say the word youre looking for is an independent woman or a carrier woman. The only thing that really fits though is there generally considered to not be that interested in marriage life, or deep romantic relationships in general.

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    As I explained above "independent woman" is hardly a pejorative, and does not include the kind of lack of interest described in the question. – Andrew Jul 14 '19 at 15:17
  • @Andrew Why are you discouraging non-peorative answers? You are not the OP, and she has not marked her Q with a tag for pejoratives, Moreover she has made it clear that some women in Japan refer to themselves that way.. – Cascabel Jul 14 '19 at 16:36
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    @Cascabel I can only assume that you and I have read the question very differently. In my mind there is no possible way to interpret "dried fish woman" as anything but negative, from any perspective. The fact that women describe themselves that way means nothing, as self-deprecation is common. – Andrew Jul 14 '19 at 16:40
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    I know you have good Japanese, but you should let the OP clarify the question, rather than reading into it your own personal perspective. The OP has made it clear that the expression may have started with negative connotations, but may no longer be so. – Cascabel Jul 14 '19 at 16:41
  • @andrew as i said I was basing it more on the comments the op latter made to further explain what they meant, not the original description, since like I said, didn't really fit stereotype or whatever here. That said, I have heard independent woman be used sarcastically at least, so it can be negative, especially in times past. I stand by my thought that independent woman or carrier woman could mean what shes looking for in that there not interested in romantic relationships or caring much of what others think/want. – MechaShadowV2 Jul 22 '19 at 4:31
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.

These are traits of a self-contained woman.

.

メールの返事が極端に遅い、短い (Her text replies are very slow and short.)

簡単な食事なら台所で立って食べる (If it is something simple, she will eat it standing in her kitchen.)

忘れ物を靴を履いたまま、膝立ちで部屋に上がり取りに行く (She will go to take forgotten stuff in her flat on her knees keeping the outdoor shoes in the air rather than put them off.)

休日はノーメイクでノーブラ (She won't put on her makeup and bra on nonworking days.)

半年ほど美容室に行っていない (She won't visit a beauty salon for half a year.)

冬場は毛の処理を怠る、又はしない (In winter she won't shave or wax her body hair properly or at all.)

1人で居酒屋に入れる (She has no problem going to a pub alone.)

最近ドキドキしていない (She rarely gets so excited that she experiences an increased heartbeat.)

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    I've never heard the phrase 'self-contained' to refer to a person. Also, how does a copy paste of part of the OP explain that usage? – Mitch Jul 15 '19 at 18:45
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    @Mitch Self contained is used to refer to a person. lexico.com/en/definition/self-contained These are the traits in the OP not the deviated discussion. – Jalene Jul 16 '19 at 0:50
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We have the words "incel" (involuntary celibate) and "inceldom" (involuntary celibacy.) It's considered a disease, in the sense that one suffers from it and it has similar connotations to the ones surrounding "dried fish woman."

Edit: Let's see, we have a recently introduced slang phrase from Japanese for which I provide a recently introduce slang phrase in English... y'all want "reliable sources?" Neither phrase has made it into the OED or the OJD. Do you think one can do better than Urban Dictionary here? Reliable sources (huge eye roll.)

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  • Maybe you're suggesting these 'incels' (who are by definition male) should have a sort of speed dating with the dried-fish women? – Mitch Jul 15 '19 at 18:48
  • @Mitch I don't agree that incels are male. One of my female friends in high school had a saying, "Given two unmarriables in the world, they will eventually find each other." I don't get all the downvotes, especially with no comment. It was an honest answer to the question and it seems like the right word. – B. Goddard Jul 15 '19 at 18:56
  • 1) 'incel' is a new term (just like dried fish woman) and was created by a group of males. Sure, women could use it but it is primarily associated with males (and the people who invented it intended it for themselves, males). 2) the non-defininng but associated activities the OP gave in the list don't seem associated with 'incels'. 3) I think that yes, incel and dried fish woman have a lot in common, but the gender association is a big difference. I'm surprised at the huge number of downvotes; maybe the gender thing is what gets the downvotes? – Mitch Jul 15 '19 at 19:02
  • I didn't downvote, but think the 'involuntary' in involuntary celibate doesn't work. The 'dried fish woman' (I even dislike writing the phrase) seems not to be interested in sexual relations. – S Conroy Jul 17 '19 at 16:16
  • @SConroy I thought the connotation was that she had given up on sex. She's only not interested because it's been too rare and frustrating...? The incel types seem to share this trait. – B. Goddard Jul 17 '19 at 17:40

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