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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 29, 2001

Back with more on 'tantaran'

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Okay, last time. For real.

Tantaran: the controversy.

I used "tantaran" in a couple of past columns and thought I had included enough context for the uninitiated to understand the word. Obviously, I didn't, and after getting a small avalanche of letters asking "wot dat?"

I tried to come up with a suitable definition. I said it was used to describe someone arrogant, an ignorant show-off.

Small avalanche one more time, but this time, people weighed in on its origin.

About a third of the "respondents" said it came from the old Imperial margarine commercials. Remember those? Someone would taste the Imperial and a crown would appear on their heads along with a trumpet fanfare: tan-ta-ran! According to one theory, that inspired a generation of kids to call anyone who acted like a "royal pain" to be called "tantaran," like the fanfare, like the crown.

Another theory gave credit to old Westerns. Bill Puleloa put it this way: "The pidgin word 'tantaran' originates from the weekly Saturday movies of the 1950s. Unlike today, right and wrong were more clearly defined in those simpler times ... Each Saturday after the bad guys screwed up, the good guys would inevitably come to the rescue with the flurry of bugles blaring ta ran ta ran. Once the audience heard this sound, we could be sure that help was on its way and proper order would be restored. Over the years, I suppose it was just a natural step away from associating this ta ran ta ran sound with pompous overrighteousness."

Theory No. 3 came from those who remember the word as "tarantaran" and say it is related to the Japanese word "taran," which means "not enough" or "short of something." So a person who is "tarantaran" is someone who "isn't all there."

Gary Kanada, a Japanese language instructor at Hawai'i Pacific University, supports that last theory.

"Tarantaran" sounds like a reduplication kind of thing, he says, and "tan" is related to the word for "head" used in the Hiroshima dialect (like that grand word "tankobu" that obachan used to describe the big egg you got on your head when you tripped and whacked the coffee table.) Therefore, tantaran would be "not enough in the head."

Kanada remembers hearing the word being used to describe doing something reckless without thinking of the consequences.

"I remember my mother scolding me and my brother saying, "See, you going make tantaran like that!" like when we touched the stove or something."

Or like when you use a word in print that you can't readily define.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Her e-mail address is lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com