Don’t Use Japanese Like You Would English

Japanese is not English. And while Japanese can translate into English, it often can’t be used exactly like that translated English. Japanese words having multiple meanings is obvious. But those multiple meanings are not the same multiple meanings as their English counterparts. Simply put: let Japanese be Japanese, let English be English.

Really. It's just that simple.

Really. It’s just that simple.

Let’s take one of the simplest verbs which you all should know.

飲む (のむ): to drink

Drink is a fairly easy word in English. How much complexity could there actually be in Japanese?

Most people come across のむ’s first deviation in the following sentence.


Literal translation: Drink medicine
Actual meaning: Take medicine

“Take” has a completely different range of uses in Japanese and English. I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of Japanese mistakenly say “I drank some medicine” and foreigners incorrectly say “薬を取った.”

But I want to show you how deep it can go, even when it starts off simple. Let’s take a look at the way Japanese also uses のむ.

1. タバコをのむ

Literal translation: Drink cigarettes
Actual meaning: Smoke cigarettes

2. 相手(あいて)をのむ

Literal translation: Drink your opponent
Actual meaning: Look down on your opponent

3. 会場(かいじょう)の雰囲気(ふんいき)にのまれる

Literal translation: Drunken by the atmosphere of the meeting hall.
Actual meaning: Overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the meeting hall.

4. 条件(じょうけん)をのむ

Literal translation: Drink the condition.
Actual meaning: Accept the condition.

5. 涙(なみだ)をのむ

Literal translation: Drink tears
Actual meaning: Hold back tears

6. 息(いき)をのむ

Literal translation: Drink breath
Actual meaning: Hold your breath

What to take out of this?

Keep Japanese and English separate, the way they were meant to be. Yeah, you’ll be using English in the beginning as your first assisting tool. That can’t be helped.

But always remember that the two need their distance. They are not a loving couple.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Don’t Use Japanese Like You Would English — 12 Comments

  1. So, as someone who has not yet taken the J-J plunge, how are we supposed to figure out some of these…less expected uses of the verb?

    I could imagine running across “to drink your opponent” in a manga and being very confused (and possibly a little grossed out). I don’t feel like this is the kind of thing that would be made clear through context.

    • I personally am a beginner, but I do have a suggestion nonetheless.
      When doing J-E, stick to sentences that DO translate well into English. This avoids much confusion until you take the plunge. After you go monolingual, you can then worry about the odd translations.

    • The solution to is to take word meanings one at a time. If you see it in a sentence in a specific way, that’s the way you can use it. Don’t try to create new ways to use it that is based on English knowledge.

      If you ran across that “drink your opponent” in a manga, you would get confused, look it up, and then have an “oh, it also means this!” moment. It’s all part of the fun.

  2. If you don’t restrict the meaning of the word to simply drinking a liquid, but understand the general concept behind it (to take something into oneself), then all these peculiarities do end up making sense.

    I have another example from the visual novel True Remembrance:


    The character La, a young girl, had her speech remarked on as sounding strange by another character (she speaks in a very masculine way, no doubt due to being raised by her grandfather) so she thinks about talking to Kurome (her guardian during the story) about it since it’s been bothering her a bit. But since she can’t think of a good way of bringing it up to him, in the end she doesn’t say anything about it, or in other words, “swallows her words” (言葉をのむ).

    This reminds me of a video ( by Yukio Furuichi (古市幸雄) where he explains to Japanese people learning English that you shouldn’t try memorizing compound words in whole, but understand the concepts behind the parts that make them up.

    • I agree, the concept of a word is important and can take you pretty far.

      But it is also important to leave the English concept of the word behind. Just because that concept may work in a number of English scenarios, it doesn’t necessarily carry over to Japanese scenarios (and vice versa).

      And good example sentence!

      • I wasn’t saying any different, was I?

        All I was saying is that the concept behind the word のむ(飲む・呑む) as seen in Japanese makes sense in Japanese in all those instances you listed where it sounds strange and wouldn’t make sense when translated literally into English. There was no talk of taking the connotations associated with an English word and applying them to a similar word in Japanese. I hope that makes my thoughts clearer. :)

        Those instances where the meaning seems strange in English would be instances where the word is used in its abstract sense rather than it’s literal sense. That is something I find all over the place with Japanese words and concepts!

        And thanks! Glad you liked it.

        • Ahh got it. Sorry that was a misread on my part!

          And as a bonus I’ll give you another のむ: carrying something concealed. Example sentence: 懐にどすをのむ. Though this feels like an outdated use.

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