Crazy Japanese Homonyms Article #1

Today I am beginning a series of articles that attack the wonderful world of Japanese homonyms. I won’t be speaking about the easy ones either. I’m going to focus on words that I come across in my everyday struggle at figuring out what the hell everyone is talking about. Shall we being?

The magical words for today are スウィミング(suuimingu) and 睡眠(suimin). Based on their morphologies and lengths, they may seem different, but I guarantee you will have a heck of a time sorting them out. The first word means “swimming”(As you have probably guessed). It’s a loan word from English. The second word means “Sleep.” You won’t find it spoken as much as the first, but there are cases when I have head either one or the other and have had a hard time figuring out what the heck someone is talking about. Are you going suimin in the pool, or is it time for suuimingu at the end of the day. Regardless of the context they are found in, these words cause me a great deal of agony. One of these days I might just be able to sort them out.

And before all of you Japanese experts start flaming me, I will clarify that 睡眠 is used mostly as a written word and you will usually hear 寝ましょう(nemashou) instead. However, since it serves as a good example, I’m going to use it anyways. So don’t waste your time.

This is yet another reason why context is so important when using Japanese. It is very difficult to guess what someone is talking about based on what little you may have heard. You almost need to understand the entire sentence to understand whether or not a word means one thing or the other. This makes spoken Japanese a lot more difficult than languages with fewer homonyms. Well, at least it does for me. I mean if you heard, “”睡眠しましょう””, what would you think? I’d grab my trunks at head for the pool. Everyone else would be off to bed. I’d be the only one in the pool. That’s actually rather depressing. I think I’m done with this for today.

1 Response to “Crazy Japanese Homonyms Article #1”


  • When I was stationed in Yokosuka from 1984 to 1986, I tried to tell my young Japanese friend that she was cute (kawaii)…but it was obvious from her initial response that was not the word I had spoken. Fortunately, she quickly recovered from the dreadful word I had called her, and she began to laugh as she realized my mistake.
    Do you know what homonym for kawaii I must have used?

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