Confusing Vocabulary

In the Introduction I cite “several precise but abstract words English lacks” as one of Japanese's major pros.  Unfortunately, the flip side of this is that Japanese to English dictionaries are often terrible at defining and unable to adequately explain these words.  So, I wanted to make a list of the ones I know are likely to cause you problems sooner or later.  While I was at it, I also added a few which are just grammatical oddities, frequently mistranslated or poorly adapted, or otherwise need some kind of clarification.  At this point it's basically a list of any word(s) I want to tell you something about.


I've tried to divide the entries into groups based on why I added them.


Words with abstract meanings
付く tsuku       加減 kagen       折角 sekkaku       適当 tekitou       仕方ない shikata nai       -asete morau form (usually させてもらう)       っていうか tte iu ka       贅沢 zeitaku       割り切る warikiru       かかる kakaru      

Pairs/Triples/etc of words with abstract meanings
先 saki vs 元 moto       ちゃんと chanto and 一応 ichiou       余裕 yoyuu, 容赦 yousha and 余地 yochi       調子 choushi and 様子 yousu       漫才 manzai (突っ込む tsukkomu and ボケる bokeru)       通じる tsuujiru and 伝わる tsutawaru      

Words which are easily misunderstood due to multiple meanings or uses
挨拶 aisatsu       聞く kiku       いる iru and ある aru       知る shiru       いい ii and 悪い warui       済む sumu      

Words having to do with politeness, obligation, etc.
世話 sewa       迷惑 meiwaku       面倒 mendou       困る komaru       勝手 katte      

Words with odd grammatical behavior
好き suki and 嫌い kirai      

Lists of words or phrases
気 ki idioms       Deceitful Loanwords       Love Words       どう dou Phrases       Some Ritual Phrases      


Words with abstract meanings


付く tsuku


There are a lot of different “tsuku”s out there written with different kanji, but like most homonyms a decent dictionary is all you really need.  This one is special because it is so vague and so common.  Most literally, it means “to attach.”  Very few uses are markedly more popular than the countless others, so here are those few plus a bunch of random ones:


顔に付く = to attach to the face = to be on/stuck to one's face

名前を付く = to attach a name to something = to give something a name/to decide on a name

近付く = 近く付く = to attach oneself to the vicinity of = to approach/get close to

気付く = 気が付く = one's spirit attach = to realize/notice something (see 気 ki idioms)

嘘を付く = to attach a lie = to lie about something

思い付く = to think and attach = to attach one's thoughts to = to think of/hit upon something

凍り付く = to freeze and attach = to be frozen/stuck to something

火が付く = fire attaches to something = something catches fire

元気付く = 元気を付く = to attach liveliness/energy = to become cheerful/get well again


This is an excellent of something you probably don't “get” yet, and will only “get” once you've been working with Japanese for a very long time.  Hopefully this saves you at least a little frustration.


加減 kagen


Literally “degree” (just like 程 hodo), though it's virtually never used to mean that.  Its current usage is always in the phrase いい加減 which is literally “good degree” or “moderation.”  This can mean exactly what it looks like in the typical line いい加減にしなさい “do it in moderation” i.e. “stop overdoing _” or “do less of _” which is often used much like the English “cut it out already.”
But just to be incredibly annoying, いい加減な_ always means “a _ lacking in moderation” despite there being absolutely nothing to even imply a negative in that phrase.  I can't really explain this at all except by pointing out that English has some equally perplexing flip-flops (see “bad boy,” “goody two-shoes,” any vulgar interjection, etc.).
It's also common to use いい加減 like an adverb to imply the action is long overdue, usually in tandem with a modal implication or どう phrase. For instance, いい加減逃げれば? would usually mean "Shouldn't you just (give up and) run away already?"


折角 sekkaku


Literally something like “circumstances conducive to doing _.”  Depending on context, translations (once an obligatory だから or なので or something is added) may include “since/while we're all here,” “given the circumstances,” “might as well,” etc.  Note that this is always used when leading into an additional activity on top of whatever the speaker et. al. are already doing or planning on doing.


適当 tekitou


Most literally, “appropriate.”  Sometimes that means what it looks like.  But when used to mean “appropriate to the immediate situation,” then it confuses the hell out of English speakers.


In that case, it describes something which is “based on gut feelings/instincts/snap judgments rather than genuine thought/consideration/analysis.”  In a comedic sense it means improvisation, ad libbing or lying to be funny, but in a more serious sense it can also mean saying something you don't really mean.  The latter is the harder to understand, so to give an example: a girl you have no interest in asks you out, but because you don't want to make her cry you (適当に) agree to go out with her anyway, regardless of the fact that this will just make her cry more later when you two break up.


仕方ない shikata nai


Also 仕方がない, しようがない, and しょうがない.  These all literally mean “there is no way/means of preventing/fixing something.”  The most accurate adaptation might be “it can't be helped,” “there's no choice,” “there's no other way,” “we can't do anything about it,” and so on depending on context.


-asete morau form (usually させてもらう)


This is the -te morau form of the causative form, both of which you should be familiar with.  What makes this weird is that “to have you let me _” not only rarely makes any sense but actually means something like “to do _ despite not asking/knowing/caring if you're okay with it.”  Sometimes this can be adapted with a phrase like “I'll have to use your _” or “I'll just let myself _” or “I'll take the liberty of _”, but sometimes it's just dropped.


っていうか tte iu ka


Technically this is a compound particle, but it's harder to explain than most, so it didn't really fit into Compound Particles.  The only real good way to explain it is through an (underlined) example like this:


Japanese: 読みが遅かったって言うか、よく解らなかった

Hyperliteral: “Would I say my reading was slow? I didn't really understand it.”

Literal: “I guess you could say I was reading slowly, but it's better to say I didn't really understand it.”


At least, that's how I interpret it literally, since using “say” that way helps establish the connection to what っていう normally means.  You may also see this shortened to something like てか or つか.


贅沢 zeitaku


Literally, this means "luxury". Most of the time, it's used to refer to someone wishing/asking/hoping for something they could never realistically obtain/achieve, especially if what they already have obtained/achieved should be more than enough to satisfy them. For instance, if your soccer team spends years training hard to beat a rival team, and you finally manage to defeat them 3-1, and you're mumbling to yourself about how you shouldn't have let them score a single goal, that's an extreme case of 贅沢.


割り切る warikiru


Most literally, "to divide by cutting", i.e. cut a part out of a whole. When meant concretely, this is as easy as it looks. Abstractly, it's more like "to cut off one's emotions from an event or decision". Cutting emotions off an event means something like "getting over", "getting past" or "moving on from" that event. Cutting emotions off from a decision means not letting your emotions get in the way of making the right choice. If portrayed positively, this often means being "decisive", but if portrayed negatively, this often means being "cold" or "calculating".

Incidentally, the use of this word assumes the person "has emotions" to cut off in the first place. If someone who simply doesn't care about human life chooses to sacrifice people for some noble cause, that's not 割り切り no matter how right the decision was.

MuvLuv Alternative has a lot of good examples of this word. For instance, when one character angrily asks whether they should simply abandon their "Storm Vanguard" and focus on the mission if he gets separated from the rest of the squad, another says "well yeah, that's the risk of being in that position", and the protagonist is impressed by her 割り切り.


かかる kakaru


This is one of those verbs that has such a ridiculous vairety of disparate meanings that attempting to list or learn them all is probably a waste of time. So here is a very short list of the meanings I think are actually worth memorizing, either because they're very common, or they're the ones least likely to be conveniently implied by nearby nouns.
   to hang/be suspended from/over/across
   to take time/cost money
   to get caught on something
   to fall for/into a trap
   (a device) to be activated/running/engaged


Pairs/Triples/etc of words with abstract meanings


先 saki vs 元 moto


These two kanji have several meanings, but they're always opposites of each other.  Every meaning of one is the opposite of one of the other's.  The best generalized definition I can come up with is that 元 moto is “point A” and 先 saki is “point B” along some literal or figurative line.  Specific cases include:


1) The line is time:

元 means original, origin, or former

先 means future, result or progression


2) The line is a plan or procedure:

元 means beginning or start

先 means destination, objective or what comes next


3) The line goes from the rear to the front of an object or along a physical path:

元 means base, source or root

先 means tip, head or end


4) The line defines a direction someone/something is looking or pointing:

先 means the direction/area/object they're/it's indicating


5) The weird one: 先 can also mean “just now.”  This is the one that's really hard to work into a general definition, but it's at least (barely) possible to reconcile this with mine by combining cases 1 and 3 and saying that the “tip” of the “timeline” is the most recent event on it.


ちゃんと chanto and 一応 ichiou


I believe ちゃんと chanto most literally means “like you're supposed to.”  Possible adaptations may use phrases like “doing it right,” “properly,” “as expected,” “correctly,” “without any huge mistakes,” etc.

一応 ichiou is pretty much the negation of that, so it roughly means “not exactly like you were expected/supposed to do it,” though for some reason it's more difficult.  Depending on the context, the precise meaning may be more like “technically,” “kind of,” “in a way/sense,” “despite evidence to contrary,” “I know what it looks like,” etc.


余裕 yoyuu, 容赦 yousha and 余地 yochi


The best general definition for 余裕 yoyuu is, “more of something than is absolutely necessary.”  That something can be food, money, time, room, space, stamina, brainpower, options, resources, etc, and it's often more than one of those things.  The word can also refer to the attitude that results from having this excess, namely a sense of pride, superiority, overconfidence, or a disposition to bide one's time, enjoy it to the fullest, and/or rub it in people's faces.


On the other hand, 容赦 yousha is basically 余裕 yoyuu given to you by some other animate party.  容赦 yousha itself may translate to leniency, mercy, tolerance, forgiveness, etc.  To clarify: in a context where 余裕が無い means “you'll have no second chances,” 容赦がない might mean “I'm not giving you any second chances.”


余地 yochi is essentially 余裕 yoyuu but without the subjective/psychological meanings. So 余地 yochi can refer to money, time, room, space, options, resources, etc. but not to stamina, brainpower, pride, superiority, overconfidence. For some reason, 余地 yochi is particularly popular when referring to a sort of logical space of possibilities. For instance, when a certain claim is completely ruled out by hard evidence, we say there is no longer any 余地 yochi left for that claim to "exist" in.


調子 choushi and 様子 yousu


Both of these words basically mean “how one is/things are doing.”  調子 choushi is more likely to refer to a change/trend over time, while 様子 yousu is more likely to refer to the immediate state of affairs.  As a result, 調子 choushi can translate to way, trend, manner, progression, state of health, while 様子 yousu can translate to appearance, state, situation, etc.  This is not as easy to learn as I make it sound.


漫才 manzai (突っ込む tsukkomu and ボケる bokeru)


Often defined as “comic dialogue,” though it specifically refers to what in English is called a “double act.”  That means a stand-up comedy duo with a ボケ boke (or “funny man,” who acts stupid) and a 突っ込み tsukkomi (or “straight man,” who comments on the stupidity).  The double act itself is important only because it is insanely common in Japanese pop culture (interestingly, the protagonist/narrator is almost always the 突っ込み tsukkomi) and because the words for the two parts of it are verbs which are very hard to explain outside of this context.


ボケる bokeru literally means “to grow senile,” so you can pretend this means “to have a senior moment” to explain why it more often means “to do something inexplicably and comically stupid.”


突っ込む tsukkomu literally means “to thrust/plunge into something” or “to stab/jab at something.”  It is not too hard to explain its colloquial usage as “to stab/attack the gaps in someone's reasoning/behavior.”  This is the more common of the two verbs, and usually much harder to adapt well, so here are a few options: to attack, to criticize, to counter-argue, to point out problems, to burst someone's bubble.


通じる tsuujiru and 伝わる tsutawaru


Both of these words share a meaning best defined as “to convey/get across.”  伝わる tsutawaru usually has a subjective object, i.e. to convey a feeling, emotion or idea.  通じる tsuujiru usually takes something more objective, i.e. to convey an idea, plan, message.  The repetition of “idea” is intentional, since that roughly describes where the two words overlap.  伝わる tsutawaru can also mean to circulate or pass down.  通じる tsuujiru can also mean to have in common or to make sense.


Words which are easily misunderstood due to multiple meanings or uses


挨拶 aisatsu


This is often defined just as “greeting” or “farewell”, but in reality it means "ritual phrase", which includes certain greetings and farewells, plus some other stuff. Admittedly, it is often fine to translate it as "greeting", but don't forget what it really means.  There's a short list of ritual phrases farther down.


聞く kiku


Means either “to hear/listen” or “to ask.”  It always means one of the two, never both, and you have no way of knowing which except for the fact that only one of them will make any sense.  Some writers will use this kanji trick to help clarify: 聴く kiku usually means “to listen” and 訊く kiku usually means “to ask.”


いる iru and ある aru


By now you probably know of 居る iru as in “to be,” which is an ichidan verb.  There's also 要る iru as in “to be needed,” which is a godan verb.  要る is only ever used in its infinitive and negative forms, so remember that いらない is “to be unnecessary” while いない is “to not be.”


There's also 入る for “to enter” (though it's usually in set phrases or read as hairu instead), 射る for “to shoot with an arrow” (context should make it exceedingly obvious when this is being used) and three or four other kanji for “to fry/boil/roast” (again, context), but it's mostly the top two you need to keep in mind.


As for ある aru, there's a popular myth that いる iru is for animate objects and ある aru for inanimate (I think some textbooks are to blame).  While there is a tendency for this to be the case, the real distinction is that いる iru is the default word for “to be” while ある aru is an alternative slightly closer to “to exist”, and there simply is no hard rule to tell which one is “correct.” Much of the time both are valid, even if one is slightly more natural.  It's kinda similar to the は vs. が problem.


知る shiru


You probably already recognize this word as “to know” or something similar.  However, dictionaries all seem to omit the alternate meaning “to care.”  This meaning is almost always used in one of two ways:

知るか can be “do I know?” but is often a masculine way of saying “do I care?” or “how would I know?”

知らない can be “I don't know” but is often a feminine way of saying “I don't care!”  Also, this seems to be exclusive to when the speaker is angry, so you could easily argue it doesn't count as a separate definition but just an idiomatic usage.  Just to be clear: in most contexts “to care” is handled by 構う kamau instead.


いい ii and 悪い warui


You probably know that these mean "good/fine/okay" and "bad". What you might not have known is that some of the alternate meanings/uses those words have in English also apply to their Japanese counterparts. First, in English "I'm fine" or "It's okay" can be a polite way of saying "I don't want/need that". The same is true of いいよ and similar phrases (as well as stuff like 結構です). Second, in English the slang "my bad" can be used for "sorry", and 悪い happens to do the same thing in Japanese. But 悪い goes even farther, and crosses over into sentences where English speakers would normally say "thank you" rather than "sorry".


済む sumu


Literally “to end/finish/complete,” and technically that's all it ever means.  The reason it's worth mentioning here is because whenever you say “to end without _ing” in Japanese you  might actually mean “to not have to _.”  For example, この事件を殺さずに済ませる is literally “to make this incident end without killing” and likely means “to end this incident without having to kill.”  Both translations are about equally valid in this example, though there will be times when only one of the two makes any sense.


Words having to do with politeness, obligation, etc.


世話 sewa


世話 is literally “help,” “assistance,” or “looking after.”  The reason this deserves a mention here is the popular phrase 世話になる or “to be/become someone who is looked after.”  Notice the passive voice coming from (apparently) nowhere.  What this phrase really means is “to impose upon someone,” and some form of it is almost invariably said whenever someone feels they are obliged to someone else.  This is sometimes best translated using “thank you” or “I appreciate what you've done for _.”


迷惑 meiwaku


The converse (?) of 世話になる is 迷惑をかける.  While the former means having someone else help you with your problems, the latter means to cause problems for someone else.  Aside from the literal (which is often accurate), it is sometimes best to translate this using “I'm sorry” or “I apologize for what I've done to _.”


面倒 mendou


面倒を見る means “to look after/take care of someone.”  This one can pretty much always be translated literally, but I'm mentioning it for completeness' sake, and because other uses of 面倒 are hard to explain without knowing this phrase.


困る komaru


Simply “to be troubled.”  This refers to any sort of emotional discomfort/malaise/puzzlement as well as actually having a problem that needs solving.  Forms of 困る komaru (especially causative) can behave a lot like the phrases above, but can often be translated literally, e.g. 人を困らせるな “don't trouble people.”


勝手 katte


It can be as simple as “selfish,” though it often refers to specific selfish actions which either directly disobey someone else's will or are done with blatant indifference toward someone else's will.  Hence it should often be adapted using “without” and an additional verb based on what action would have negated the selfishness, e.g. 勝手に出るな might be “Don't leave without telling/asking me.”


Words with odd grammatical behavior


好き suki and 嫌い kirai


The words themselves are effortless, but grammatically speaking they behave very oddly.  They're both -i forms of the verbs 好く and 嫌う, but at the same time they seem to be -na adjectives, since it's perfectly normal to see 好きじゃない, 嫌いだった, etc.  Fortunately, other forms of the verbs are normal.


Lists of words or phrases


気 ki idioms


気 ki literally means “spirit” or “air.”  You may be more familiar with it as the Chinese word 気 qi or the martial arts concept of ki/qi/chi/life energy/whatever flowing through your body, which is actually a very good image to help you understand the word in Japanese.

There are dozens of common, standardized and idiomatic phrases using this word; probably more than any other word in the language has.  It's certainly the hardest list of expressions for a Westerner to master (see気/ for a very thorough list), which is why I want to list some literal meanings and equivalent English phrases here for the most common ones. Also, I believe that checking how much of this list makes intuitive sense to you is a good way of gauging how far you're getting with your Japanese overall.


気にする = “to do _ in one's spirit” → “to be something/exist in one's mind” → “to worry/think/care about something”

気になる = “to become one's spirit” → “to become part of/get into one's mind” → “to be intrigued/annoyed by”

気に入る = “to enter one's spirit” → “to take a liking to”

気に食わない = “to not eat in one's spirit” → “to be indigestible to one's mind” → “to dislike/be offended by”

気がする = “for one's spirit to do _” → “to have a feeling/inkling that”

気が入る = “one's spirit will enter something” → “to put effort into/focus on something”

気が付く = 気付く = “one's spirit will attach to something” → “to notice/realize something

気が済む = “one's spirit will end/finish with something” → “to be/become satisfied with something

気が散る = “one's spirit will scatter” → “to be distracted”

気が抜く = “one's spirit will come out” → “to lose motivation/focus/energy”

気を抜く = “to take out one's spirit” → “to remove one's worries/cares” → “to relax”

気を遣う = “to use one's spirit” → “to think/worry/care about someone else”

気のせい = “the fault of one's spirit” → “one's imagination”

気のない_ = “a _ of no spirit” → “a _ lacking in energy/interest” → “an indifferent/half-hearted _”


Deceitful Loanwords


Kind of a random topic, but definitely worth mentioning.  By now you've noticed that Japanese has a lot of loanwords from English, that they are usually written in katakana, and that they pretty much mean the same thing they did in our language, although they may exclude or add an alternate meaning.

There are also some loanwords whose usage bears little or no resemblance whatsoever to English.  It's easy to get confused by them, especially if your dictionary chooses to be misleading and just throw the English word back at you.  A few good examples:


テンション tension refers to a person's attentiveness/reactiveness/perkiness/energy level

メール mail always refers to e-mail or text messaging, never physical mail

マンション mansion actually refers to a large apartment complex

ピンチ pinch always refers to the state of being “in a pinch” or “in trouble,” never the physical act of pinching


Love Words


Japanese has a lot of them.  I would like to list a few.


恋 koi and 愛 ai both mean romantic love, but they make a distinction English often leaves implied.  恋 koi tends to mean short-term, shallow, infatuated love, while 愛 ai tends to mean long-term, deep, married couple-type love.  It's common for this distinction to be explicitly mentioned (恋じゃなくて愛だ), so you need to understand it.


恋愛 ren'ai is the general term for love, encompassing both 恋koi and 愛 ai (as you can tell from the kanji) and sometimes even more kinds.  You usually use this word when talking about the concept of love itself rather than any specific instance of one person falling for another.


好き suki, gerund of 好く suku, refers to liking/loving someone.  You may recall the word “to like” in English has a certain ambiguity as to whether it means friendship, love between family, or actual romantic love.  好き suki has it too.  嫌い kirai is its opposite, meaning disliking/hating someone.


憧れる akogareru and 惚れる horeru both mean “to be attracted to/by _,” and, interestingly enough, seem to imply that the emotion (romantic or otherwise) is caused by how the other person acts/behaves.


憧れる akogareru is more likely to mean “to admire/look up to” or “to have a crush on” than actual love, while 惚れる horeru is more likely to mean “to fall in love with/be charmed by.”  It's probably worth mentioning that 一目惚れ hitomebore is how the Japanese say “love at first sight.”


どう dou Phrases


Not many of them, and none are particularly hard, but they're so incredibly common it's worth trying to explain them instead of simply listing meanings like with the 気 idioms.


1) どうでもいい = “however (it turns out), good” = “good no matter what” = “it doesn't matter how”.  It can almost always be translated with some form of “doesn't matter.”  But to help it make more sense, imagine whatever came before it ended with _は (which it often does) so that you get “In the context of _, no matter what, it's fine” i.e. “it's fine no matter what happens to _/how _ works out.”


2) どうすればいい = “if I do how, good?” = “It would be good if I did what?” = “What should I do?”  Again, often best assumed to have a _は so that it becomes “it would be good if I did what about _/in the context of _/when _ comes up” or “What should I do about _?”


3) _てどうする is a particularly interesting usage of the conjunctive -te, literally meaning “_ and do what?” or “What would you do after _ing/accomplish by _ing?”. Usually the intent is along the lines of “Why would you (want to) _?” or “What was the point in _ing?”


4) _すればどう or _したらどう are literally "If/when you do/did _, what/how?" which if rearranged very slightly produces "How about you do _?" or "What if _ happens?", and these are pretty accurate definitions. However, the intent behind this is often closer to "Why not _?"


5) どうせ acts like an adverb or transition, and is always at the beginning of a clause. The etymology is extremely similar to どうしても (since せ is an old form of する), but the intent of どうせ_ is more like "(it doesn't matter anyway since) you're still going to _" or "_ is still true" or "_ will turn out to be true".


Some Ritual Phrases


おはよう or おはようございます “good morning” literally “it is early” (not sure about this)
今日は (こんにちは) “good day” or “good afternoon” literally “this day is”; also the は is read “wa”
今晩は (こんばんは) “good evening” literally “this evening is”; also the は is read “wa”
左様なら (さようなら) or さらば “goodbye” or “farewell” sayounara is literally “if that is so”
お休み (おやすみ) or お休みなさい “good night” literally “rest”
行(い)ってきます said by someone leaving the house literally “I'll be going”
行(い)ってらっしゃい said to someone leaving the house literally “be on your way”
只今 (ただいま) or 只今戻(もど)りました said by someone returning to the house literally “I just now returned”
お帰り (おかえり) or お帰りなさい said to someone returning to the house literally “coming/come home”
お邪魔します (おじゃまします) said by someone entering another's house literally “I'll be a bother”