Language Faux Pas: Part III

Kempo ("kungfu")

My Japanese Embarrassment

When I arrived in Japan I spoke absolutely no Japanese and I had no money for lessons and so I taught myself the language which meant lots of mistakes.  But immersion helped me learn quickly.  My first immersion was at  a Zen temple where I practiced Kung Fu (Japanese: Kempo).  The Kempo vocabulary was conveniently limited: “kick”, “punch”, “stand”, “meditate”, “wash” … (see my post here).  And fortunately it did not take long to build competency in understanding the simple commands so as to enjoy temple life.


After our three hours of fighting, our sessions would end with mutual shiatsu (massage).  One of the words I learned during our shiatsu practice was “boki” (ボキ) which is the sound of a joint cracking — it was most often heard when backs were twisted or bent.  Ahhhhh!

But with only a limited vocabulary, I wanted to add feeling to my otherwise childish ‘conversations’.  It was then that I discovered a trick used to add emphasis to Japanese words. In English, if we want to emphasize a word, one way we do it is by stretching out the vowel sound.  For example:

  • His motorcycle is really coooooool;
  • The movie was faaaaaantastic.

Japanese sokuon (double consonant)

In Japanese, instead of lengthening the vowel, they lengthen the consonant to emphasize a word.  In linguistics, this is called “gemination” and is done by the Japanese letter called the  “sokuon” which can sound a bit like a glottal stop (for those of you interested in the terms).   Transcribing this sound into English is done by doubling the consonant.  So here are two examples:

  • big = oki   ==>  biiiiig = okki
  • amazing = sugoi  ==>   amaaaaazing = suggoi

Just as in written English you don’t see all the “i”s in biiiiiiig,  so in written Japanese you don’t see the double consonant when expressing this exaggeration — it is all done in speech.   Actually, to complicate things, depending on the word, actually putting sokuon in a written Japanese word may actually change the meaning of the Japanese word.   I did not fully understand this complexity and it led to my embarrassing mistake which I will now tell you.

Studying around a Kotatsu

My story returns back to the Zen temple where, on one winter day, we had a large party.  Men and women attended, sake was served and I was the only foreigner there.  We sat at tables with blankets on them and heaters underneath called kotatsu.  Kotatsu kept your legs and whole body warm because the temple was not centrally heated.

We were all enjoying ourselves and I stretched and twisted my spine to freshen up.  My back made a big crack (“boke”) which felt great and relieved the tension in my back from sitting that long time on the floor.  So I had big smile on my face.  My friend across the table yelled over to me inquiring:

friend: Sabio-san, why the big smile.
me: I just had a craaaack [in my back].

With that, everyone started laughing uproariously and picking up the blanket on the kotatsu look at my ‘legs’.  I laughed nervously not understanding only to find out later my mistake.

I said, “boke” (cracked-joint) but wanted to emphasize it to show why the big smile so I said “bokke”.  Well, boke is one of those words that changes meaning when a sokuon (double vowel) is used:

boki (ボキ) = cracking sound in a joint
bokki (勃起) = erection

So the conversation they heard was:

friend: Sabio-san, why the big smile.
me: I just had a huge erection.

Thus everyone giggled and lifted up the kotasu blanket to see exactly what the foreigner meant.  I was reminded of that mistake for a long time.

My Son’s Language Embarrassment

Children also struggling to learn a language — our kids struggle to learn their native English.  And, my son’s recent mistake served as the inspiration for this post series:

Recently my son had joined my wife and I in bed to read before going to sleep.   Taking a break during the reading, I was telling my wife about some work story with a patient with an erection problem (not unusual in a Urology practice).  My son, 11 years-old, quickly asked, “Dad, what is an erection?”  My wife cracked up laughing and my son, to protect his pride quickly tried to guess, “Wait, I think I know what it is.  Jesus had an erection, didn’t he?”  Then trying to talk over my wife’s howling laughter, I told him. “Some people think Jesus had a *resurrection* — that’s when you come back to life after being dead.  An erection is when your penis gets hard and longer.”  My son was embarrassed, but not too much because he enjoyed the humor too.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

5 responses to “Language Faux Pas: Part III

  1. The example with your son is hilarious! And you handled it nicely too. Many fathers would have bristled at the incident: “You’re not old enough to hear about that yet.”


  2. crl

    Well, if Jesus was human…

  3. Hey Sheldrake: Yeah, my son is, fortunately, very easy to talk with. As is my daughter.

    Hi CRL: You would not believe how hard it was for me to fight the urge to use my PhotoShop skills to touch UP the resurrection picture to match the story! I had to tame demon inside me. I am so proud of myself.

  4. Earnest

    Best story yet! Now if I could just figure out when I can share this story with your son’s classmate….

    I didn’t have a grammar problem, but I was almost killed by a combination of my own stupidity and the excessive politeness of the residents of Mumbai

    I flew into Mumbai some years ago to visit a college friend. I was arriving at midnight local, so I got a hotel room to stay in until the domestic flight at 6 AM, at the Best Western India Bombay. I called and got the room, and was asked if I would like to be picked up. Me: “No, I’ll just find you”. Her: “Sir, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Me: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it”. Her: “Very good sir, we will see you then.”

    I landed, walked through customs, and found myself in a dark parking lot filled with silent men looking at me.

    Me: “Excuse me, where is a taxi?” [Silence.]

    Me [yelling]: “WHERE IS A TAXI?”

    A boy comes up, with perfect English says “I will carry your bag, Sir!” I did not release my bag and he wandered away. Then a man comes and says he has a taxi. We get in a 3 wheel Bajaj and off we go. Him: “You go where, Sir?”

    Me: “Best Western India Bombay.”

    He looks over his shoulder at me as if I’m crazy, then gives a little head shake that I learned means “We have a deal” and we get on a high speed 3 lane highway. He’s going about half the speed of all the other traffic, then screeches to a halt after he almost gets hit. He jumps out and yells to me: “You get out now!”

    I run with my bag away from the Bajaj to the curb. He points: “You get in this car!” I see a black sedan with 4 wheels, and get in. I never paid the other guy. The new driver turns and says something in Hindi. I reply: “Best Western India Bombay.” He looks at me as if I’m crazy, then does the head shake, and drives off.

    We now seem to be in Mumbai proper, and the streets look worse and worse. I then think maybe these guys think I want a tour of the Mumbai slums at midnight local. I then start waving my arms in the air, yelling “Domestic Airport!” over and over again, while I threw about Rs 2000 into the front seat. He turned, looked at me and smiled, whipped the car around and dropped me off at the airport. I stayed awake the rest of the night, happy to be alive.

    To this day I don’t know what these guys thought I was actually saying. Sabio, you speak some Hindi, what do you think I was saying by accident?

  5. @ Earnest: Glad you enjoyed. But, nope, can’t say I know what the problem was in Bombay.

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