I think I have said before that I love words, I love reading them. I love saying them- letting them roll or leap off my tongue. I love discovering new words and finding ways to use them in everyday conversation.
I wonder at the word choices people make when expressing themselves. Why we choose some words and not others. The connotation and denotation of words is fascinating to me.
Words in the English language often lead a double life. There is the dictionary meaning (the denotation) and then there is how the word is perceived (its connotation) by speakers of the language.
English speakers hail from all different ethnicities and nationalities. Though we use the same words, they sometimes have very different connotation depending on who is speaking.
I remember when I first came to Japan; I went to a party (enkai) with my Japanese colleagues. At the end of the evening, someone floated the idea of keeping the good vibes flowing by having a second party (nijikai) at a karaoke bar. Eager to form bonds with new colleagues, I went along.
During the night, different people performed and of course, with a Jamaican in the group (that’s me in case you were wondering) one of my colleagues decided to try to sing Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry.’
At the end of his performance I clapped and laughed with everyone else yelling, “Well done, well done!”
After that, I noticed some of my colleagues who by now were understandably a little inebriated (there’s a word I love to say!) were sniggering every time I said “well done”. Finally one of them, deemed the most outspoken of the group, asked me why I said “well done.”
I told him I meant that he had done a good job.
“Oh” he laughed with relief.
“In Japan we use that word when we talk about meat.”
My “well done” was great job! His “well done” was how he liked his steak.
I was inadvertently (another high score scrabble word!) calling my colleague a steak!
We all had a good laugh about it.
Since then, I have had several other instances where I have had to explain my choice of words. That’s because in general, western English speakers have a sort of universal understanding of what is meant by certain words or expressions.
Here in Japan, those same words and expressions, perfectly innocuous in English, are just not understood in the same light by Japanese speakers of English.
It is a fun and sometimes frustrating dance to speak with colleagues and associates in my adopted home. I do a lot of clarifying to ensure that what I meant to say is what was understood by the person or persons I am addressing.
How about you? Have you had this happen to you? How did you deal with it and if you’re still dealing with it, how do you get your point across without offending and possibly starting an international incident?
Write me some words in the comments. I love words, I want to hear your story.