I’ve been thinking some about Ariana Grande’s misadventures with tattoos and the Japanese language, and having learned a little more about the precise mistake she made, I have a little more to say, for what it’s worth.
The Japanese approach to language is maddening in some ways. Its compound words, or jyukugo, are not very intuitive, and figuring out the correct pronunciation from just the kanji is just an educated guess at best. Because they basically bolted the Chinese writing system onto the Japanese language, you have several different pronunciations and meanings for the same kanji, and good luck trying to figure out which are which.
That is not what Miss Grande ran afoul of, though. She ran afoul of the Japanese tendency to take common words and give them a colloquial meaning that no one could possibly guess unless they were already familiar with the culture.
Yes, 七輪 does indeed mean “seven rings”, if taken literally. But the problem is that that’s not how the Japanese use the word.
And if you know nothing about Japanese, you don’t know enough about the language to know that a word can mean something very different than its dictionary meaning.
This is the true danger of trying to use something from another culture because you think it’s “cool”. It’s cool right up until you figure out that you didn’t know what you didn’t know.
Honestly, I didn’t know that there was a whole story behind “shichirin” either. It’s news to me. The difference is that I know enough about Japanese to not plug random words into google translate and expect it to come out in anything remotely resembling anything of use except as a very general start to translation.
Japanese is a language you simply can’t mess about with. There are far too many landmines with regard to colloquialisms, politeness conjugations, word meanings, etc., to think that you can treat it glibly. It’s a shame that miss Grande had to learn that lesson so publically and permanently, but t should be a lesson to the rest of us, particularly those who haven’t learned enough about Japanese to understand how much they don’t know.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fun and challenging language to learn. But you have to treat it with respect. Not because of any kind of PC nonsense, but in the same way a firearm demands respect. Treat it glibly and someone could get hurt.
Practice safe Japanese, folks.