There is no such thing as 「熱い水」

If you read the title of this post and thought, “How can Japanese not have hot water?!” then this post is for you. Those of you who are familiar with this topic will know that Japan has hot water, of course. How can the bath and tea loving Japanese not have hot water. It’s just the complete opposite, in fact. Japanese people love hot water so much that they have a completely different word reserved just for water that’s hot. In fact, they even put an honorific 「お」 on top of it to make sure hot water realizes how awesome it is.

お湯 – Honorific hot water who blesses us with its holy gift of tasty tea and relaxing baths

Cold water just gets the shaft because it sucks and is just 「冷たい水」 if you want to be specific or just 「水」 as coldness is often implied (remember, hot water gets its own word).

The moral of this post is that you should never take anything for granted in a new language. That’s why, when I try to say something I’m unfamiliar with, I always try to find some real world examples and usages using various dictionaries and Google. There’s also Lang-8 to get your work checked by other people.

I’ve compiled a list of some word usages that might seem odd to us only because of the way we’re used to saying it in English. Can you think of other examples that have caught you unawares in the past?

  1. 電気をつける/消す – Attaching and erasing electricity to turn the lights and electronic devices on or off.
  2. 傘を差す – Pointing an umbrella to open it.
  3. シャワーを浴びる – Japanese uses a special verb for showering, also used for basking in the sun.
  4. 量が多い/少ない – Amount uses discrete measurement adjectives of numerous and few. I’ve often made the mistake of using 大きい and 小さい.
  5. 背が低い – Height is low NOT short.
  6. 教える – You don’t have to be a teacher to teach. You can use 「教える」 just for telling someone something they don’t know.
  7. うそ – Not always used for fibbing, you can say “lie!” to express disbelief as in “no way!”

20 thoughts on “There is no such thing as 「熱い水」

  1. You can say お冷 (おひや) for cold water, but I’ve only heard it in restaurants for ordering a glass of cold water. I’ve heard お水 too. I live in the Kansai area, so I don’t know if it holds for all of Japan. Not as badass as お湯, but I thought it was worth a mention.

  2. Heh, (1), (5) and (7) also happen in Portuguese — as far as I know, a completely unrelated language.

    But yes, your point stands. Examples like these are a particularly strong evidence of the harm that can be done studying a language using translations (alone).

  3. Some of my favourites:

    1) 分かる – going beyond the usual translation of ‘understand’ to mean ‘know’ in some contexts, ie, I know what I’m doing tomorrow.
    2) 薬を飲む - the drinking of medicine regardless of form always struck me as odd.
    3) 足 – denoting the whole leg, or from the knee down, but always including the foot. And no seperate word for foot.
    4)歯を磨く - polishing one’s teeth instead of brushing.
    5) ズボン/パンツ - caused me a lot of pain back in the day, since I always wanted to say パンツ、which means underwear and NOT trousers.
    6)放課後 - that special word for talking about stuff you do after school that I’d always forgot and get stange looks when I said ‘学校の後’

    And probably a few others I can’t think of right now

  4. @Thomas
    That’s true, I’ve often asked for お水 in restaurants.

    Interesting, I wonder if the early influence of Portuguese had any effect?

    Those are great examples! You can distinguish between foot and leg using 足 vs 脚 vs 足元 but it’s a tricky topic.

  5. I can’t believe it took me ages to learn about 湯. Even after going to numerous onsen and the extra large ゆ written on the entrance!

    Something that springs to mind is a recent correction from the friendly Japanese people over at lang-8. They replaced my literal Japanese of become to understand or something similar with
    The useful kanji 気 with various related meaning of spirit, mind, feeling etc. Best described as just ki I’ve always felt!

    (is this right?!)
    気が付く – Attaching ki to become aware/conscious of something

    気になる、 気にする – do to ki is to worry and care about something.

    する気がある – having doing ki is to intend to do something

    する気がしない – will not do doing ki is to be unwilling to do something.

  6. About foot… In Greek the word “podi” means both foot and leg. And “cheri” means both hand and arm. Although I’m far more fluent in English than Greek, I still get them mixed up in English. (But then I get my kids’ names mixed up…)

    Great post, TK!

    I once read a Japanese kids’ book about a boy having a bath. On one page, it said the water was just right, not too hot and not too warm (温かい). Hold on, you mean not too hot and not too cold? Wrong! It seems if bath water is merely 温かい, it’s not hot enough for the Japanese!

  7. >Homebound
    Actually, a Japanese friend of mine said that パンツ can mean both underwear AND pants. It’s all a matter of pitch: high to low = underwear; monotone = pants

    I wonder if that has to do with the general negativity toward suntanning at all, they just lump it all together as one “bad” word….OR it could be vice versa, the general negativity is due to there only being one word.

  8. The leg/foot thing can also be applied to arms/hands, I remember my boss once said 「彼、手痛い」to describe me having a sore elbow. Although I suspect that’s more laziness than proper usage.

    the 面白い = funny and/or interesting thing caused me a bit of a headache when I started to learn Japanese. I got used to it though. I was also surprised by the clear distinction between 疲れた and 眠たい as in English they would both be “tired” (unless you’re about 4 years old and you could be “sleepy”).

  9. 暖かい


    I can never remember when to use what of these, can’t tell the difference on warm – warm and hot – hot. >_<

  10. @Spaniel And I learn something new every day… I didn’t know that “sleepy” is only used by children.

    @AlexanderW 暖かい and 暑い are used for weather temperature and other abstract meanings. 温かい and 熱い are used for object temperature and other concrete meanings.

    … I think. I would be lying if I said I don’t get them confused sometimes as well.

  11. Hmm, just thought of another one, but I’m not sure about it’s application to this post:

    The train is not easily coming. (The train is late)

  12. I do believe you are a little confused and should be careful where you are “pointing” your umbrella.
    Isn’t point 指す not 差す

  13. No, 指す is for pointing with your finger only, as finger is 指.

    As my IME says,
    差す 〔一般的〕「傘を差す、刀を差す、潮が差す、影が差す、赤みが差す」

  14. @Raichu,

    It’s interesting to draw parallels with Greek. Though you may be interested to learn that there are other words that target the arm more, like μπράτσο (“upper arm”), βραχίονας (general term), μασχάλη (“armpit”). Πόδι, though, as you said, is pretty much the key term for both the leg and the foot (unless you want to specifically say calf, shin, etc.), in my understanding.

    Speaking of learning Greek, what’s struck me is how much more accessible Japanese is. With the exception of grammar dictionaries, the amount of excellent online resources that are freely available beat any printed resources hands down (or at least the ones I’ve encountered).

    In my studies of modern Greek, however, I’ve had to amass quite a number of dictionaries, monolingual and bilingual in different directions, targeted at natives and/or foreign learners, and all from different eras, to be able to function. (I still have to ask my father for assistance with archaic terms and expressions.) Now, these dictionaries are all collectively very good (wish I could say the same for the Kodansha furigana dictionaries), but they can’t match the convenience of what WWWJDIC,,, and Mac OS X’s inbuilt Japanese dictionaries have to offer.

    Wall of text, I know — tl;dr is, as Japanese students we have access to such useful online free resources we shouldn’t take for granted. 😉

    Plus there’s nothing like Tae Kim’s guide and blog that I’m aware of …

  15. HI, this is my first time reply on this blog. Actually, from my knowledge as a native Chinese speaker, I don’t think 湯 is a unique word at all in Japanese. In traditional chinese, 汤, or 湯 carries the meaning of hot water also. The japanese probably took the word, like every other kanji, and applid their reading to it, and hasn’t changed since then. It’s just nowadays that chinese refer the word to soup instead of hot water. Nonetheless, they are both HOT

  16. in Polish there is a quite clear distinction between this what in English is called “silence”.
    e.g. 無言 is in Polish “milczenie” (the silence created by saying nothing, but… well I suppose all of you already know 🙂 ).
    The rest of Japanese words that are translated into English as silence would be “cisza” in Polish.

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