Thursday, March 22, 2018

お~, ご~, 御~ Honorific Prefix

One of the first things you notice when learning Japanese are the honorific suffixes, like san, chan and kun, but there's another type of honorific too: the honorific prefix o お or go ご. The kanji for both these words would be 御, but it's usually not written with kanji. In this post I'll explain its usage.

御 is O or Go?

The honorific prefix can be either o お or go ご, and it's normally written with hiragana. It may be written with kanji, as 御, but that rarely happens.

For example, oniisan お兄さん, "brother," has the honorific prefix, but it's rarely written oniisan 御兄さん, with the 御 kanji. Likewise, the expression gokurou ご苦労, "thanks for your work," is usually written like that, not as gokurou 御苦労. They can be written with the kanji, but that doesn't happen as frequently.

So both o and go prefixes are the same thing, even though one is o and the other one is go. It's the same 御 honorific prefix.

Prefixes Are Pre-Established

Note that, for most words, you can't just use o or go however you want. They either get the o prefix or the go prefix. You can't change it.

For example, you can't say goniisan ご兄さん, that doesn't exist. It's always oniisan お兄さん. Likewise, gokurou is always gokurou, it's never okurou お苦労. That's already established, you can't change it.

Which Words Get Which Prefix?

There's a simple rule you can follow to tell if a word will get the o prefix or the go prefix as its honorific prefix: if the word is read with kun'yomi, including jukujikun or gikun, then it's the o prefix. On the other hand, if it's on'yomi, then it's read with go.

Of course, there are exceptions, and even cases where a word can actually be prefixed with either and nobody will bat an eye. But the general rule is that.

Also, in some rare cases it's read other ways, too, like on おん or gyo ぎょ.


The nature of the o, go honorific prefix and its function kind of varies, from meaningless to meaningful. It's important to know this because the honorific prefix can be added to basically any word in the Japanese language for great effect, but it commonly has little effect or no effect at all.

That's to say: in some cases, the honorific matters. But in other cases it doesn't matter. And being able to tell when it matters and when it doesn't matter is kind of important.

Honorific Language

The primary use of the honorific prefix is in, of course, "honorific language," keigo 敬語.

The basic idea of keigo is expressing respect to whom you're talking to or about. There's varying degrees of this, but normally, in the business world, talking to your boss, clients, interviewing people, talking to strangers, etc. a minimum level of keigo, decorum, is to be expected.

Kazoku Example

To understand it better, a common example: the word kazoku 家族, which means "family."

If you're talking about somebody's family and you want to show a minimum of respect, you'd better say gokazoku ご家族 instead, which would mean "[your] honorable family" or "[his] honorable family" or "somebody's honorable family."

So every time you want to talk about somebody's family in honorific speech, you add in the go for some honorable spice.

Note that it's possible to use the word kazoku in honorific speech, only so long as you aren't talking about anybody's family. That's pretty unlikely to happen since you'd expect to be talking about somebody's family if you're talking about a family at all. Only, maybe, if you're talking about families in general, or what is "a family," then the word kazoku alone would be alright, otherwise it's gokazoku.

An exception is when you're talking about your own family. In Japanese, it's generally considered pompous, not to say cocky, stupid, snobby, arrogant, imbecile, disgusting, repugnant, and other bad words, to use honorifics toward yourself. You use honorifics toward other people, not toward yourself. So your family is just a kazoku, but other families are gokazoku.


So now we know when we can put an honorific in a word and when we shouldn't, but which words can we honorific? The answer is: basically all of them.

For example, a "worry," shinpai 心配, becomes "thy honorable woe," goshinpai ご心配, Or even the "hair of the head," kami 髪, becomes "thy honorable tresses," ogushi 御髪. Exaggeration aside, that's pretty much the gist of it.
  • kakka, gomerei wo! 閣下、ご命令を!
    Your Excellency, [please give] your orders!
    (if you watch an space opera with space-battleships space-battling like Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu there's no way you won't come across this phrase.)
  • okuchi ni au ka douka お口に合うかどうか
    Whether or not it'll suit your palate.
  • mottainai okotoba 勿体ないお言葉
    Your words are more than I deserve.
    (expression of gratitude when someone says something in favor of someone else.)

Okay, fine, you can't add the honorific prefix to all of the words. For example, you don't add it to katakana words, such as "coffee," coohii コーヒー, but you can add it to most words.


You can even honorific verbs. In this case a certain juggling of words happen. For example, au 合う means "to meet." In order to add the honorific, the phrase becomes: o-ai ni naru お会いになる, which means "to meet" all the same, but more literally "to have become meet."

Japanese respectful language likes to avoid using words directly with people of higher status. So you don't "meet him," that's preposterous! More like, "a meeting with him happened," and you were involved.

Even something like o-tsukare-ni-narimashita お疲れになりました means "the tiring became," as if tiredness was a thing of its own, and may be used instead of the much simpler tsukareta 疲れた, "tired."

Sonkeigo vs. Kenjougo

The above was sonkeigo 尊敬語, which you use when you want to make somebody appear of higher status. There's also the counterpart, kenjougo 謙譲語, which you use when you want to make yourself appear of lower status.

It's the difference between saying "you rock" and "compare to you, I suck." Or, also, "your drawing looks good," or "damn, I wish I could draw as well as you." Ultimately the effect is the same but the essence is different.

Kenjougo Verb

When a verb becomes kenjougo it gets a shimasu します instead of ni naru になる added to it. For example: matsu 待つ means "to wait," but say you're a butler to some ojousama, then you'd say o-machi-shimasu お待ちします instead.

Perhaps the most common case of this is the verb negau 願う, "to request," "to ask," "to beg," which becomes o-negai-shimasu お願いします.

Whose Honorific Is It?

Now this is rather problematic because it can be confusing at times. For example: houkoku 報告 means "report." If you're "reporting," houkoku'ng, then you're reporting your report. And, obviously, you're reporting your report to your superiors. It's unlikely that your boss would have to report something to you. What you gonna do if he doesn't report to you? Fire him? You can't!

So it sounds weird that gohoukoku ご報告 is such a common phrase. If you're always reporting to your superiors, it's just your houkoku, unlikely to be their gohoukoku.

What happens here is kenjougo: when you use a verb that has some sort of contact with someone you should use honorific language with, you gotta say o-verb-shimasu, remember? So go-houkoku-shimasu ご報告します in this case, since your report ends up going into their ears or eyes or something.

An extreme case of this would be the phrase:
  • go-shitsumon-sasete-itadaki-masu ご質問させていただきます.
    Lemme ask u sum stuff.

The reason this phrase is confusing, is because shitsumon 質問 means "question." So, normally, you'd expect that goshitsumon ご質問 means "your question", because I can't use the honorific toward my own stuff, so it must be somebody else's question.

But shitsumon-suru 質問する is a verb, means "to ask." Therefore go-shitsumon-suru ご質問する also means "to ask," but in kenjougo, which means I'm asking something to someone whom I express respect toward.

And then turning that suru into sasete-itadaku just makes it more polite by saying something like "if you'd let me, I'll do it." And then the masu suffix for that extra layer of creamy politeness: go-shitsumon-sasete-idataki-masu, meaning: *ahem* "excuse me, please, could you just let me ask questions for a moment, I'd love to may be able to use this opportunity to know about stuff and things in your honorable, venerable, majestic, grandiose, fantastic presence, if possible and I'm not intruding and taking too much of your super-important, extremely precious, honorable time, alright, thank you very much, many gratitude, it's an honor to be asking you."


Besides that, there are even certain set phrases that are like alternative ways of saying something, but in keigo.

One kenjougo set phrase easy to notice is o-me ni kakaru お目にかかる, which also means "to meet" someone important, specially for the first time, or "to see" something important for the first time. For example, meeting your boss, meeting the king, or, unlike the average peasant, being allowed the honor to gaze on the beauty of the imperial palace or something.

Another one is goran ni naru ご覧になる, which means "to see," just like miru 見る.


So we can honorific a lot of things, but how much can we honorific at once?

Well, it's possible to have not a single noun, but multiple nouns with the honorific prefix in a single phrase. And the more there are the sillier it looks. Imagine someone saying "thy majesty, thy noble words and honorable actions have caused thy powerful guard great worry for thy delicate safety." It's just full of qualifiers everywhere.

No, don't. Have common sense.

So, do people just spam the F key the honorific prefix to pay respects? No. It's used more moderately. You don't honorific everything just because you can. Sure, there are occasions, more official occasions, where a more honorific language is expected, but normally this doesn't happen.

There are words that you always honorific, there are words you might honorific, and words you'd think nobody cares if you don't honorific so you just don't. It really depends.

In Anime Life

In anime, honorific-prefix-bombing usually indicates a character has become unhealthily infatuated with someone of higher position. Like, to yandere levels.

Of course, when this happens the speech is only one of the factors. It's pretty obvious from how they get enraged about everyone who doesn't show the utmost respect in The Great One's presence, or how they follow every order like their word is absolute, etc.

Pretty Speech

In some cases the honorific prefix may be used to make the word prettier, softer, and perhaps cuter, in a sense, than it really is. This is called bikago 美化語, literally "beautification-language."

This happens for example in words related to food. Like niku 肉, "meat," and yasai 野菜, "vegetables." Since they aren't really anybody's meat or vegetables, they're just, well, meat and vegetables, you don't really need to lower or raise anybody's status here, but words like oniku お肉 and oyasai お野菜 exist... why?

It's really just that. It's more fine this way. Like, more refined. Finer.

It's the same principle that led people to somehow make "his mistress" mean what it means. It isn't for the lack of a better word, it's for the lack of a finer word. Sometimes people feel saying niku without the honorific sounds bad, rough, something a ruffian-pirate would say, so they put the honorific in there and it gets instantly classier: oniku.

(maybe kenjougo works the same way: your houkoku is so low-status you need to attach a go- to it in order for it to be honorable/pretty enough to be done.)

Words That Just Have Honorific

There are some words that just have the honorific prefix and that's it and there's no changing that. Such words are pretty much always said with the honorific. It isn't about honorific speech, or sonkeigo or kenjougo, or speaking pretty, bikago, or whatever. It's just how they're said.

For example: gohan 御飯. This means, of course, "FOOD!!!1" And it's always like that, gohan. You don't see anybody eating han's, they eat gohan only. They're gohanivores,

And this is kind of weird because it has the honorific, but there's nothing honorific about it. And you can't make it honorific by adding the honorific prefix because... it already has the honorific prefix. So you can't say, for example, gogohan 御御飯, that doesn't exist. But you can't say just han 飯 either, because nobody would know what that's supposed to mean.

Honorable People

Words regarding family members, like okaasan お母さん, "mother," otousan お父さん, "father, " oniisan お兄さん, "brother," etc. usually have the honorific prefix. In some cases they don't, but they usually do.

Likewise, okyakusama お客様 usually has the honorific prefix to refer to "clients" as people. In some cases you see kyaku 客 without it, but it's usually okyaku お客.


Words related to manners, like orei お礼, "thanks," ojigi お辞儀, "bowing," gomen ご免, "sorry," pretty much always have the honorific prefix.

Historic Stuff

In some cases the situation is a bit complex. For example, taku 宅 means "house," so otaku お宅 means "your house" or "somebody's house," etc. But then that word became a slang: otaku オタク which refers to somebody very deep into their hobby. And then this otaku slang is always otaku, never just taku as it once were.

(there's also a theory that something similar happened with oppai おっぱい, claiming it came from onaka-ippai お腹一杯, "to fill one's stomach," because, you know, milk does come from those things. But it's an old word and nobody is quite sure where it really came from.)

Another case is omae 御前, meaning "you" in Japanese. It used to be that the term was supposed to refer to the "front," mae 前, of someone of high status, because referring to such person directly was disrespectful. Like how we say "stand before you" in English, we stand in your front. But that was centuries ago, nowadays it's just stuck and nobody really remembers or cares how it was used.

Examples & Vocabulary

The following are examples of words containing the prefix.

Note that you can attach the prefix to pretty much every word, but some words more frequently have the prefix attached to them, in particular, some of the following come words tagged as common in the JMDict Japanese-dictionary project.

Words Starting With o in Japanese

An easy way to tell if the reading is kun'yomi is the presence of okurigana, the kana after the kanji.
  • onajimi お馴染み
    (not to be confused with osananajimi 幼馴染, "a girl that can't become the main-character's girlfriend in anime," I mean, "childhood friend.")
  • omamori お守り
    "Protection." Charm, amulet, etc.
  • onigiri お握り
    "Grasp." Rice-ball made from literally grasping on rice.
  • okawari お代わり
    Second helping of food. "Replacement."
  • oshaberi お喋り
    Talking. Chatting.
  • omairi お参り
    "To go" visit a shrine, temple, or other place of worship.
  • okaeri お帰り
    [Your] return (home).
  • okaeshi お返し
    Return (of something.) Payback.
    (in anime, specially used when a school gang counter-attacks after being attacked.)
  • ohanashi お話し
  • oshirase お知らせ
    Notice. A notice, of something.
  • omake お負け
    Free stuff you get with a purchase. Bonus! Extras!
    (wait, is it really "free" if you have to pay for something anyway?)
  • obake お化け
    Monster. Ghost.
    (specially those that "transform," bakeru 化ける, into something else.)
  • otagai お互い
    Us both. They both.
  • otsukai お使い
    Errand. Use.
    Someone who goes on an errand. Can be used for an errand.
    Familiar of a witch, etc. (tsukaima 使い魔)
  • otetsudai お手伝い
    Helper. Someone who... helps.
    (from tetsudau 手伝う, "to help," "to give a hand.")
  • otearai お手洗い
  • oshimai お仕舞い
    The end.
    (oshimai da!!!)

No Okurigana

Of course, it's not always you have the okurigana to help you.
  • omae お前
  • otoshidama お年玉
    Gift given by new year.
    (in anime, usually money given to characters by their parents.)

WARNING: the following are ateji, do not try to make sense of them.
  • omiyage お土産
  • oshare お洒落
    Stylish. Well-dressed. Looking good.
  • okazu お菜
    Side-dish. Accompaniment (various contexts.)
    (this written with the kanji for veggies!)
    Masturbation material. (slang, but yes, really. They have a word for that.)


Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes a word isn't kun'yomi but starts with o 御 anyway.
  • ocha お茶
  • okashi お菓子
  • obentou お弁当
    Boxed lunch.

Words Starting With go in Japanese

Words that are read with go 御 are fewer and less common, but they do show up often. With on'yomi there's rarely okurigana or something to hint, so you're kinda on your own there.
  • gozaru ご座る
    gozaimasu ご座います
    To be.
  • gohan ご飯
  • goran ご覧
    To see. To view.
  • gozonji ご存知
    [As] you know.
    Someone you know.

Other Readings

Examples of other readings for the honorific prefix:
  • onsha 御社
    Your company.
  • gyoen 御苑
    Imperial garden.

Note that sometimes the kanji isn't a honorific prefix. For example, the word seigyo 制御, meaning "control," has the gyo at the end of the word instead.

Polite People Doing Polite Things

A number of polite expressions, gestures, etc. feature the honorific prefix.
  • gomen ご免
    gomennasai ご免なさい
    Sorry. "Excuse [me]."
  • gomenkudasai ご免下さい
    Please forgive [me.] Please excuse [me.]
    Let me intrude. (used when going into people's homes.)
  • oyasumi お休み
    Good night. "Your rest.
  • oyasuminasai お休みなさい
    Go sleep! Good night.
  • goaisatsu ご挨拶
  • gokurou ご苦労
    gokurousama ご苦労様
    Good jaaaab. *clap clap clap*
    Thank you for your work.
  • gochisou ご馳走
    gochisousama ご馳走様
    Thanks for the meal.
  • otsukare お疲れ
    otsukaresama お疲れ様
    "You tired." Thanks for your work.
  • okagede お陰で
    okagesamade お陰様で
    Thanks to you. Thanks to that.
    It's your fault this happened, b-baka!. >: (
  • ohayou おはよう
    ohayou gozaimasu おはようございます
    Good morning.
  • omedetou おめでとう
    omedetou gozaimasu おめでとうございます
  • omimai お見舞い
    Visiting someone who's sick. (in the hospital or bed.)
  • orei お礼
    Thanks (which are given.) Gratitude.
  • ojigi お辞儀
    Bowing. (Japanese gesture.)
  • oiwai お祝い
  • oseji お世辞
  • owabi お詫び
  • onegai お願い

Pointing at People Isn't Polite Enough

Frequently, when referring to people by adjectives, a combination of honorific prefix and honorific suffix is used, turning it into a o___san pattern.
  • okyakusan お客さん
  • omawarisan お巡りさん
    Policeman. Policewoman.
  • oishasan お医者さん
  • otousan お父さん
  • ojousan お嬢さん
    (in anime, an ojousan is usually a rich girl because it's an honorific'd word used toward other people's daughters, implying it's a daughter of someone of high status.)

Strangely, okusan 奥さん, "wife," never gets the prefix, maybe because it already starts with o?

The prefix go may also be used this way.
  • goshujinsama ご主人様
    Your husband. (lord of the house.)
    Master. (of a maid, servant, slave, etc. frequent in anime)
    Customer. (in a maid café, where they're treated like masters.)

An example of prefix without suffix:
  • gokazoku ご家族
    Your family.
  • otaku お宅
    Your home. You household. Your family.

Possessions & Body Parts

The honorific prefix sometimes comes before people's possessions, like money, for example:
  • okane お金
  • otsuri お釣り
    [Your] change. (coins, etc.)

The honorific prefix is also seen in body parts:
  • onaka お腹
  • odeko お凸
  • oshiri お尻

In particular, it can be seen in words that normally don't need the prefix:
  • te
    Hand. Hands.
  • ote お手
    Hand. Hands.
  • otete お手手
    Hands.(reduplicated plural, children language.)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Leave your komento コメント in this posuto ポスト of this burogu ブログ with your questions about Japanese, doubts or whatever!

All comments are moderated and won't show up until approved. Spam, links to illegal websites, and inappropriate content won't be published.