サバを読む (さばをよむ, saba o yomu) indicates the act of fudging a number for one’s benefit. For instance, a lot of people サバを読む (lie) about their age, height and weight, pretending to be taller, younger and lighter than they actually are. Pretentious men also サバを読む (lie) about their salary and 経験人数, that is, how many girls they have ever ‘experienced’.
(* 経験 means ‘experience’, and 人数 means ‘the number of people’.)
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Word Origin and Structure
サバを読む consists of two words ‘サバ’ meaning ‘mackerel(s)’ and ‘読む’ meaning ‘read’ with one particle ‘を’ between them. Therefore, it literally means ‘read mackerels’. If you are a kanji lover, you may write サバ as ‘鯖’.
There are a couple of theories about the origin of this expression, and the most accepted one relates to how fishers used to count mackerels in a fish market; back in the days when refrigeration technology was not as advanced, fishers had to count mackerels in a rush because they spoiled very quickly. Therefore, they often miscounted the numbers, and the expression ‘サバを読む’ came to mean ‘count something roughly’, which led to the current meaning. Note that ‘読む’ used to mean ‘count (something)’, but the definition has changed and now it means ‘read (something)’. The old definition is still present in a few expressions such as ‘票を読む‘ meaning ‘count votes’ and ‘秒読み’, which literally means ‘counting seconds’ and indicates when something is seconds away from happening.
Usage and Grammar
Usually, this expression is used as “Xでサバを読む”, where X is what you lie about, such as your salary, weight, etc. You can also say “Xをサバ読む”, where the particle ‘を’ is put after X to mark it as an object of the verb ‘サバ読む’. In the latter case, the particle ‘を’ between ‘サバ’ and ‘読む’ is omitted and ‘サバ読む’ is used as a compound verb rather than an expression.
On a dating app, a lot of men サバを読む (lie about) their salary.
I was shocked to find out that my girlfriend サバ読んでいた (lied about) her age.