- ギリギリ | Girigiri | ‘Just barely’
- バラバラ | Barabara | ‘Chaotic’
- ぐでんぐでん | Gudenguden | ‘Passed out’
- ドキドキ | Dokidoki | ‘Heart pounding’
- もしもし | Moshimoshi | ‘Hello’
For the Japanese language, onomatopoeia is in style. However, the Japanese have a much different perspective on how to use sounds like “bang” or “pop” in their own language, compared to the West. English uses such words as sound effects, but in Japanese, this type of word can be used to describe various kinds of emotions, situations, and even salutations. Although there are many onomatopoeia-like words in Japanese, this article only features a few interesting examples.
Onomatopoeic words in Japanese generally follow an ‘A B A B’ syllable pattern, which gives them a funny sounding cadence and sets them apart from other words in the language. This article gives these words a lighthearted touch for those just getting interested in the language. These are all words that I could not have weathered my time in Japan without, and words that I will never forget. In addition to explaining each word, I will also add some cultural background and a few interesting words that didn’t quite make the list.
Don’t be overwhelmed by Japanese. Learning a few words daily, like the ones in this article, will strengthen your ability for those very moments that you are faced with the chance to using them. So before your next trip to the land of the rising sun, take note of these five hilarious and helpful Japanese words. The examples will begin with the word girigiri.
1. ギリギリ | Girigiri | ‘Just barely’
Girigiri is the sound you make sifting through a crowd or rushing towards the door on your tiptoes. When you’re late for a meeting and you barely eked through the automatic doors on the subway or bus, you can say, “Girigiri Safe!” Often translated as “barely”, girigiri is not only an adverb but also an adjective.
In English, we never find ourselves saying, “Today’s errands are quite barely,” or “The deadline is already barely”. But you can and should say things like this in Japanese. I found this word so helpful across my travels and sometimes even found myself at a loss of words when speaking in English, since we don’t have girigiri!
Japanese people say things like, “The deadline is already barely”, and they mean that the deadline is nearing very very soon. Such a word is so helpful if you consider the following situation. If a train is about to leave the station, then in Japanese you can just say, “Train is girigiri”. Plain and simple. In English, you would have to say something like “The train is about to leave”. Whereas, if you can say “The train is girigiri”, you don’t need to spend time saying something so long and cumbersome.
Below are four helpful phrases in Japanese that use the word girigiri. Also included are the English translations and pronunciations using Japanese romaji. These phrases can be used in a wide range of situations and are quite flexible. Don’t be afraid to try these out while practicing Japanese or in conversation on your journeys beyond.
*A lowercase ō indicates the use of a long “oh” sound.
- ギリギリ間に合った! | Girigiri ma ni atta! | I barely made it!
- もうギリギリだ。 | Mō girigiri da. | It’s just about time.
- ギリギリまで待たないでね。 | Girigiri made matanai de ne. | Don’t wait till the last minute.
- ギリギリになっちゃう! | Girigri ni natchau! | It’s gonna be close!
2. バラバラ | Barabara | ‘Chaotic’
In English, people have a wide range of words to describe everyday madness, but none match the same silliness as the Japanese word barabara. The word can be described as chaotic, dismembered, disorganized, or simply all over the place. Barabara is the sound of raindrops whacking the ground and splashing about in a thunderstorm.
For those unfamiliar with the Japanese pronunciation of r, it is similar to a trilled r but shorter. If you have difficulty pronouncing this sound, try saying “bada bada”, for a close approximation. Barabara, however, is a bit more common and Japanese people will be impressed to see your familiarity with this word and confidence using it in conversation.
Although it sounds a little funny, barabara, like the other words on this list, is a commonplace Japanese word to describe various things and does not necessarily sound funny to Japanese people.
I love to use barabara to describe the movement of people through the Tokyo subway during rush-hour or the scattered clothes on my bedroom floor. As a new language learner, barabara can be put to great use when you are at a loss of words for situations that are crazy, confusing, or disorderly. Just add a verb to the end of barabara ni to form a simple two word commentary on a situation. Refer to the examples below on how to introduce a subject.
- それがバラバラになった! | Sore ga barabara ni natta! | That stuff has gone all over the place!
- 全てがバラバラになった! | Subete ga barabara ni shita! | Everything was messed up!
- バラバラに並べる。| Barabara ni naraberu. | To distribute randomly.
3. ぐでんぐでん | Gudenguden | ‘Passed out’
When it comes to celebration after a long day of work, coworkers often hit the bars and Karaoke parlors to wind down. However, sometimes things go too far. Gudenguden is the perfect word to use when that happens. It basically means “passed out”, and it is the sound someone makes when they are so tired and worn out they don’t want to be disturbed. Sometimes it is merely uttered as gude-gude by the person lying helpless on the floor of the train.
While in Japan if you find yourself at a hostel party or any other wide variety of outings, gudenguden is a funny word you can use. This word is always associated with alcohol, however a more general word for passed out or tired is kutakuta, which can be used more broadly. Like other words on this list, it will delight Japanese people to hear you use it (plus I am sure it will generate laughter and friendly conversation).
Below is a list of a few phrases that use the word gudenguden. Don’t expect to use this word so often, but it is helpful to describe someone who has had too much in one night and needs a friend to get home safe.
- ぐでんぐでんに酔った。| Gudenguden ni yotta. | Passed out drunk.
- ぐでんぐでんのサラリーマン! | Gudenguden no sarariiman! | A dead-drunk salaryman!
- ぐでんぐでんになって帰ろう。| Gudenguden ni natte kaerō. | You’re about to pass out, let’s go home.
4. ドキドキ | Dokidoki | ‘Heart pounding’
In contrast to gudenguden, the next word dokidoki has more to do with the emotions someone is feeling. Dokidoki is the sound of your heart pounding before, for example, you walk into an interview or classroom before an exam. As a result, it is the perfect word for describing nervousness or anxiety. In contrast to other words on this list, dokidoki can commonly be used as a verb when followed by the word suru to describe sound that your heart makes or the emotion of being thrilled, excited, or anxious.
I often use this word when talking to my friends before doing something like lining up for a rollercoaster ride. If you find yourself in a foreign country like Japan, you might often be faced with trying exotic foods or doing something slightly outside your comfort zone. If so, dokidoki can be a useful word for expressing your emotions and the emotions of those around you. The word is quite flexible, and simply saying the word in isolation expresses the feeling of anxiety.
Consider the sentences below that use dokidoki. These phrases can be used in a wide variety of situations. Also, feel free to add or amend subjects followed by wa at the beginning of the sentences to indicate who feels the emotion. Be sure to remember this word throughout your travels, as you never know when you might have the unexpected chance to use it.
- ドキドキしている。| Dokidoki shitteiru. | I’m nervous.
- 心臓がどんどんドキドキしてきた! | Shinzō ga dondon dokidoki shite kita! | My heart was beating fast!
- あの子はドキドキしているみたい。| Ano ko wa dokidoki shiteiru mitai. | She looks like she has fallen in love.
5. もしもし | Moshimoshi | ‘Hello’
Japanese does not have a general word for “hello” like we do in English. Instead, they tend to say good morning as ohayō gozaimasu or say good afternoon as konnichiwa. The exception is when they answer the phone, where they use the standard Japanese word for hello, which is surprisingly moshimoshi. This word is not only used to initiate conversation by telephone, but also to ask if someone is still on the line.
The word moshimoshi comes from the stem of the Japanese verb mōshimasu, which means “to say something”. So when you say moshimoshi on the telephone, it is kind of like literally saying, “I say I say”, when you answer the phone or call someone in Japan. It reminds me of the dated English expression “I say, good sir…”, and perhaps that is one way you can remember it. In some cases, this word can also be used in daily conversation simply to grab someone’s attention.
Although you may think that you won’t find yourself speaking Japanese over the phone during your trip, you never know. Furthermore, I believe this word to be vital for trips to Japan longer than just a few weeks. Even if you do not know enough Japanese to have a phone conversation, it is always welcome in Japan to at least try your best at first. Moshimoshi will definitely be a pleasant gesture to anyone on the other end of the line, so long as they speak Japanese.
- もしもし＿さんいらっしゃいますか？ | Moshimoshi _san irasshaimasu ka? | Hello may I speak with Mr./Mrs. ___?
- もしもし聞こえますか？ | Moshimoshi kikoemasu ka? | Hello? Can you hear me?
- もしもし忘れ物ですか？ | Moshimoshi wasuremono desu ka? | Excuse me, is this something that someone has lost?
The words on this list are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Japanese words of this kind. As you learn the language, you will uncover a variety of clever and funny sounding words. However, as a beginner, understanding these words will give you the insight to detect others like them. Little by little, you can build up a repertoire of new and fascinating words and the phrases to accompany them. And in time, you will feel confident to use these words in context and conversation. Have fun on your journey learning Japanese!
Hero image by Sam X (CC0 1.0)