Sometimes, it's better not to translate...

Good morning everyone,

It's going to rain tonight and tomorrow morning and then it should be nice for Friday and Saturday before raining again on Sunday. Temperatures will hover between 20C and 25C all week, so it's going to be warm at least...

As anyone who has studied a second language for any length of time will tell you, learning lists of vocabulary can be tough. On some occasions, the very first time you’ll see a word will be on paper. It'll seem like some abstract or complex term that’s almost impossible to remember as it’s so rarely used in the real world. Other times, you’ll have heard–or perhaps even used a word yourself–in conversation, but when encountering it on paper for the first time it appears completely alien due to the way it's written. Thankfully, for learners of Japanese, since kanji characters are based on meaning rather than speech sounds, it can be easy to decipher a written word even if you’re still not sure how to pronounce it. But sometimes, translating a word too literally can land you in all kinds of trouble, or at the very least leave you chuckling to yourself while native Japanese speakers are left wondering what’s so funny…

1. Bug Tooth

Take a trip to the dentist in Japan, and if you’ve been overloading on sugary sweets or haven’t been brushing properly, you’re bound to hear the word “mushiba” muttered through a surgical mask at some point. Written with the kanji character for insect (虫 mushi) and tooth (歯 ha), mushiba is the Japanese word for cavity, which is thought by some to have come into use either because of the bug-like black speck they appear as or from the term mushibamu, meaning “to be eaten into by a worm or other insect”. OK, now be honest, how many bug teeth do you have right now?

2. Nose Song

Have you ever been in such a good mood that you’ve sung a nose song all day long? Maybe you sing a nose song or two whenever you’re doing the household chores that require very little attention? We’re talking, of course, about humming, which is referred to as hanauta (鼻 hana/nose 歌 uta/song) in Japanese owing to the fact that the sound we make when we hum comes out from the nose rather than the mouth.

3. Hand Bags

Written with the two kanji characters 手 (te, meaning hand) and 袋 (fukuro, or bag/sack), tebukuro are not, in fact bags which you’d carry in your hand, but bags into which you’d put your hands; otherwise known as gloves. So remember: if you’re ever shopping with a Japanese person who is still struggling to master the English language and they tell you they’d like to buy some new “hand bags” for the winter, you might be better off taking them to an outdoor store than some fashionable outlet that sells purses and sparkly clutch bags.

4. Parent Finger

Quick, which finger is your parent finger!? If you raised your index finger, you'd be wrong. In Japan, the oyayubi, or thumb, is written with the kanji characters for parent 親 and finger 指.. (Bonus fact: toes are called ashi no yubi, or “feet fingers”, in Japanese.)

5. Golden Balls

Not to be confused with the popular manga series Gintama, kintama–written 金 (kin/gold) 玉 (tama/ball, sphere, jewel) or in katakana script–refers to, well, a man’s tiny round treasures. There are, of course, a number of other, slightly more scientific, terms out there, so we wouldn’t recommend using kintama if you ever find yourself discussing a potential issue with said spheres with your doctor, but there’s something about the term “golden balls” which always brings a smile to our stupid, immature faces.

6. Arm Clock

“Pardon me, sir, do you have the time?” “Sorry, young fellow, but I neglected to strap on my arm clock today!” I'm fairly certain you all got this one right away, but it is nevertheless still pretty amusing to think of a wristwatch as an “arm clock” (腕 ude/arm 時計 tokei/clock), and imagine someone strapping a whopping great timepiece to their wrist before leaving the house.

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7. Needle Mouse

A “needle mouse”, or harinezumi ハリネズミ, is actually the Japanese word for hedgehog; something that video game fans will no doubt have come across when it was once used as a codename for an in-development Sonic The Hedgehog title. Definitely one of the cuter names for an animal in the Japanese language, and we wish more animals had more literal-sounding names. Have you ever seen Ueno Zoo’s beautiful Goth Bears?

8. Cat Tongue

What would it mean if someone said they had “cat tongue”? That they’re able to lap up milk like a feline? Perhaps they use their tongue to clean their body at the end of each day? In actuality, the term 猫舌 nekojita, made up of the kanji characters for cat (猫 neko) and tongue (舌 shita, but pronounced jita when attached to neko) is used to refer to someone who cannot take (thermally) hot food or drink and prefers to wait for them to cool down. I am frequently told that I’m nekojita since I am unable to drink the scalding-hot cups of tea made for me. I, on the other hand, prefer to think that my tongue is perfectly normal; it's just not thick enough to withstand the triple-digit temperatures hot drinks are prepared at here in Japan…

▼ “Mmmn! Delicious, room-temperature water!”

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9. Dream Sprite

Hmmm, how to describe this one without offending our more sensitive readers… A “dream sprite”, or musei, is written with the characters 夢 (mu, meaning dream) and 精 (sei, meaning spirit, sprite, or energy). It’s this second kanji, however, which might give you a hint as to the meaning of the word 夢精 musei, since it is also used to refer to a gentleman’s seed. Some young men who are going through puberty are visited by these “dream sprites” in the night, resulting in all kinds of awkwardness, embarrassment, and hurriedly laundered sheets. In English, they're called 'wet dreams'.

10. Dirt Stick

Last but not least is a word that, hopefully, none of you will ever have to use. There are many ways to describe a thief, few of them especially flattering, but “dirt stick” (the direct translation of 泥棒 dorobou) is the most common one used. The etymology of dorobou has been the subject of much debate over the years, with numerous complex interpretations and theories as to why a person who steals should be known as a filthy pole, but quite honestly we don’t even need to know why or how it came into being; it’s wonderful just the way it is. “Yes, officer, that’s the dirt stick who stole my wallet!”

There are plenty more Japanese words which can be twisted into awkward English simply by taking their readings literally, and we encourage you to share them with your fellow readers below. You might get some funny looks when you chuckle to yourself the next time someone talks about their “hand bags” or their annoying coworker who’s always singing “nose songs”.

Have a great day!


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