Five Words In Japanese I Wish We Had in English

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One of the fun things about speaking bits and pieces of a foreign language is that sometimes there are words and ways of saying things we just don’t have in English. For some terms, we just pull them in, words like manga, karaoke and anime. Good as those are, I’d like to nominate a few more from Japanese.

1. San

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Everybody who watched any of the Karate Kid movies or pretty much anything else to do with Japan knows the Japanese use – san with names, similar to what we do with Ms., Mrs., and Miss. Greetings, Miyagi-san, regularly called honorifics or titles.

But for anyone who has ever accidentally offended someone by inappropriately using Mrs. when it should have been Ms., the one-size-fits all nature honorific of – san is terrific. The term is used for men and women, married or not. No more wondering if Leslie is male or female when you type out that email, and in a world where gender issues make the front pages alongside Caitlyn Jenner, bringing – san into English could be a great thing.

2. Mottainai

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In the dictionary, mottainai is translated as a sense of regret over waste. It can be used when something like uneaten food is thrown away. If a plot of land lies vacant and unused in a crowded city, that too can be mottainai.

But mottainai is the “fuggetaboutit” of Japanese, and that’s why we need it. It means so many things. If someone lazy gets more than she deserves out of a deal, that’s mottainai. If your boss demands you do something you think is a dumb use of your time, that’s mottainai. If you buy a new phone and it breaks the next day, that’s mottainai. A planned vacation to a sketchy location can feel mottainai. Want to shut down a silly argument? Just say “mottainai” in response. And if your ugly friend scores a good looking boyfriend, that’s also mottainai. Nothing you can do about it? That’s also mottainai!

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3. Gaman

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Gaman is a word for something the Japanese have too much of, and which Americans don’t have enough of. We need to think more about this here in the U.S., and so really need this word.

The translation for gaman is “to endure,” and that’s a decent dictionary version. But to the Japanese, the word can mean have patience, suffer quietly, put up with something, keep your mouth shut, or don’t bother others with your problem. It helps folks get along in a crowded country.

So the bonehead behind you in line at Starbucks complaining about the slow service lacks gaman, as does the guy sighing too loudly when the subway slows down – hey, we’re all affected, suck it up, dude, you’re not the only one who is gonna be late. A person who starts barking about being hungry, or thirsty, or tired ten minutes into your weekend hike has no gaman. You can answer any of these whiners by simply saying “Have some gaman and deal with it.” That’s what you’ll hear Japanese moms say to their kids, after all.

4. Ookii/Chisaii

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Not quite a needed word pair, but maybe a better way to say something. The word ookii means “big” and chisaii means “small.” They are also used in Japanese to mean loud and quiet. To me, a really loud noise, like a jet landing or a train approaching, always feel more BIG than loud. Same for the opposite; doesn’t it sound nice to refer to a cat’s light meow, or a baby’s gentle breathing, as small?

5. Onomatopoeia

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You remember this term from 8th grade English class, right?

Onomatopoeia are words that sound like what they describe, such as click-clack. We have them in English of course, but Japanese is chock-a-block with evocative onomatopoeia. Try saying these out loud: sara sara (the a is pronounced like “Say ah” at the doctor), which means smooth. Tell your girlfriend her skin is delightedly sara sara tonight and watch the fireworks happen.

On the other side, beta beta is a great way to describe something sticky. Don’t try that with your girlfriend, especially if the sara sara thing worked out well. Instead, amuse her by saying wan wan in Japanese (say it in a higher pitch) referring to the sound a small dog makes as his bark.

The last one is both a great onomatopoeia of its own, and term we definitely need in English, especially this time of year: uki uki. Uki Uki refers to that feeling of warm, tight excitement right before summer vacation from school is about to begin.

Who hasn’t run out of a hot classroom as a kid wishing there was a way to express that feeling?


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