お帰りなさい o-kaeri nasai—welcome home (and other set phrases)

The beginning learner of Japanese (or the tourist in possession of a Japanese phrasebook) encounters a lot of “set phrases” which are required by Japanese etiquette in various situations. These are often long and complicated strings of (what seem like) meaningless syllables, difficult to learn and difficult to say. You learn them by rote and assume that the meaning will become clear as you learn more of the language.

As you progress in learning Japanese, these set phrases become second nature through repetition, and you no longer give a thought to their underlying meaning or structure, anymore than you do with English phrases such as “how do you do?” or “Good bye” (supposedly a contraction of “God be with you”).

Indeed, many of these Japanese set phrases, which may be among the first examples of the language that you encounter, involve quite advanced grammar, and there may be a gap of several years’ study between first learning them and being equipped to analyse them. By which time you (rightly) no longer care.

So, in summary, this post should be of interest to nobody. The information I present below is of no practical use in speaking or understanding Japanese. Furthermore, as I am no kind of expert, I don’t know the correct terminology and there is every chance that my explanations are wrong.

Nonetheless, there may be some value in dissecting these phrases to see what they reveal about obscure corners of Japanese grammar, and I present it here as a reference for anyone else who may be curious.

1) こんにちは konnichiwa—good day; こんばんは konbanwa—good evening

Okay, I’m starting with an easy one. 今日 kon nichi just means “this day” (i.e. “today”), and は is the topic marker. So we can imagine this phrase being the start of a sentence such as こんにちはお晴れですね konnichi wa o-hare desu ne—today is a fine day, isn’t it? Or any other sentence beginning “today is…”

Similarly, 今晩 kon ban means “this evening” or “tonight”.

2) おはようございます o-hayou gozaimasu—good morning

This one is a little harder. At its core is the adjective 早い hayai meaning “early”. This changes to hayou, following a pattern that we will see later with arigatai → arigatou and medetai → o-medetou. I haven’t come across this adjective ending outside these set phrases, and I don’t know if it can be applied to -i adjectives in general.

ございます gozaimasu is the polite (-masu) form of the humble form ござる of the verb aru, to be.

So we have: honorific prefix お o-, はよう hayou—early, ございます gozaimasu—is. Literal meaning: “it is early”.

3) どうもありがとうございます doumo arigatou gozaimasu—thank you very much

As above, ございます gozaimasu is a humble form of the verb aru, to be. ありがとう arigatou is that strange おう -ou form of the adjective ありがたい arigatai meaning thankful. どうも doumo can be analysed as どう dou—how and も mo—ever much, to mean “ever so much” or “very”.

Literal meaning: “I am ever so grateful”.

Digging a little deeper into ありがたい arigatai: this is written in kanji as 有難い, meaning “hard to exist”. We can imagine how the meaning shifted to mean “rare” or “precious”, and then to be an expression of thanks.

4) おめでとうございます omedetou gozaimasu—congratulations

Once again, we see an example of an -i adjective taking an -ou ending. In this case, めでたい medetai—happy, auspicious becomes おめでとう o-medetou. As above, ございます gozaimasu is a humble form of the verb aru, to be.

Literal meaning: “It (the occasion) is happy/auspicious”.

5) あけましておめでとうございます akemashite omedetou gozaimasu—Happy New Year

おめでとうございます omedetou gozaimasu means “congratulations” as explained in number 4) above.

明けまして akemashite is a polite conjunctive form of 明ける akeru—begin, dawn, become bright (not to be confused with 開ける akeru—open).

What is a polite conjunctive form? It is the て -te (conjunctive) form of the ます -masu (polite) form of the verb. We’ll see it again below when we come to hajimemashite. I have not come across this form outside of these set phrases, though I am not exposed to the kind of formal written material where it might be used.

Literal meaning: “(The year) begins, it is happy/auspicious.”

6) お願いします o-negai shimasu—please

お o- is the honorific prefix.

The verb 願う negau means request, beg, wish for.

One way to make a humble form of a verb is to say “o-[N] shimasu“; literally “I do [N]”, where [N] is a noun formed from the -masu stem of the verb. In this case negau → negaimasu → negai.

If we want to be even more humble, we can replace shimasu with itashimasu, to give お願い致します o-negai itashimasu, where 致す itasu is the humble form of する suru to do.

Literal meaning: “I request…”

7) どうぞよろしくお願いします douzo yoroshiku o-negai shimasuどうぞよろしくお願い致します douzo yoroshiku o-negai itashimasu—{a set phrase when you have just been introduced}

(This phrase is usually glossed as “Please be kind to me”.)

どうぞ douzo is a word that you say when offering someone something.

宜しい yoroshii is a humble form of the adjective いい ii meaning “good”, and よろしく yoroshiku is the adverb form, meaning “well”. In this case, it is asking someone to do something in a “good” way or to make something good.

お願いします o-negai shimasu means “please”, as explained above.

Literal meaning: unclear. Maybe something like “I offer (myself), and request that you be good (to me).”

8) はじめまして hajimemashite—Pleased to meet you

We saw the polite conjunctive form まして -mashite in number 5) above; here it is again.

This time it is the polite form of 初めて hajimete, meaning “for the first time”. As with other set phrases, the rest of the sentence is implied.

(This one is a little complicated because there doesn’t actually seem to be a verb 初める hajimeru, although it is obviously linked to the verb 始める hajimeru—to begin.)

Literal meaning: “For the first time…”

9) 下さい kudasai—please

くださる kudasaru is the honorific form of the verb くれる kureru—to give.

If I want you to give me something, or to do something for me, I could just use the imperative form of the verb くれる kureru: くれ kure. For example 教えてくれ oshiete kure—teach me. But that would sound extremely rude.

However, by using the honorific form 下さる kudasaru to describe your action of giving, it no longer sounds rude and becomes a polite request. The simple imperative form of 下さる kudasaru is 下さい kudasai.

If I want to be even more polite, I could use the polite (-masu form) imperative くださいませ kudasaimase, and I sometimes hear this form in public announcements.

Literal meaning: “Give (me)…”

10) ただいま tadaima—I’m home

This is a set phrase required by Japanese etiquette when you arrive home.

只今 tadaima literally means “right now”, “just now”. The full version of the implied sentence is 只今戻りました tadaima modorimashita—I have just now returned.

Literal meaning: “just now”

11) お帰りなさい o-kaeri nasai—welcome home

This is a set phrase required by Japanese etiquette when someone arrives home and says “tadaima”.

お o- is the honorific prefix.

帰る kaeru means “return home”.

As in example 6) above, the -masu stem of the verb is a noun form meaning “the act of returning”.

kaeru → kaerimasu → kaeri

なさる nasaru is the honorific form of する suru—to do.

なさい nasai is the simple imperative form of nasaru.

Literal meaning: “Do the act of returning home”.

12) お休みなさい o-yasumi nasai—good night

This is a phrase said to someone who is about to go to bed. The structure is the same as example 11) above.

Here the verb is 休む yasumu—to rest.

Literal meaning: “Do the act of resting”.

13) いただきます itadakimasu—{a set phrase used when you are about to eat}

頂く itadaku is the humble form of the verb 食べる taberu—eat.

(It is also the humble form of もらう morau—receive and 飲む nomu—drink.)

頂きます itadakimasu is the polite non-past -masu form.

Literal meaning: “I eat”.

14) いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase—welcome

This is a greeting used by shop assistants every time you enter a store or restaurant, or indeed every time you encounter a shop worker while idly browsing (this can be a little alarming until you get used to it).

いらっしゃる irassharu is the honorific form of the verb 来る kuru—to come.

いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase is the polite (-masu form) imperative form of いらっしゃる irassharu.

(The simple imperative would be いらっしゃい irasshai, which we will see in a later example*).

Literal meaning: “You come (in)”

*At this point, it’s worth pausing to consider these honorific verbs and how they behave. They are certainly not behaving like regular -u or -ru verbs. And we are taught that Japanese has only two irregular verbs: する and 来る. So what is going on?

The verbs in question are:

  • 為さる nasaru (honorific form of する suru, to do)
  • 仰る ossharu (honorific form of 言う iu, to say)
  • いらっしゃる irassharu (honorific form of 来る kuru, to come)
  • 下さる kudasaru (honorific form of もらう morau, to receive)
  • ござる gozaru (archaic humble form of aru, to be)

1) The -masu form of these verbs doesn’t follow the normal rules for -u verbs or -ru verbs; they drop the -ru and add -imasu.

nasaru → nasaimasu (not *nasarimasu)

2) The simple imperative is formed from the -masu stem

nasaru → nasai (not *nasare)

In effect, this is another verb conjugation in addition to the Type I (-u), Type II (-ru) and Type III (irregular) verbs.

15) どういたしまして dou itashimashite—you’re welcome

どう dou means “how”, “in what way”.

致す itasu, as discussed above, is the humble form of する suru—to do.

致しまして itashimashite is the polite conjunctive form (remember that from number 5) and number 8)?) of 致す itasu.

So where does that leave us? If  いたしまして itashimashite is just a more polite way to say して shite—doing, then dou itashimashite starts to look a lot like どうして doushite meaning “why?”

Literal meaning: “In what way am I doing (to deserve your thanks)?”

16) お待たせしました o-matase shimashita—sorry for making you wait

Another shop assistant phrase. This is usually the first thing the shop assistant will say when the customer arrives at the counter, and again when he/she hands the product to the customer.

お o- is the honorific prefix.

待つ matsu is the verb to wait. 待たせる mataseru is the causative form: to make somebody wait. The past tense would be 待たせました matasemashita—I made (you) wait.

As in number 6) above, this becomes humble by using the structure o-[N] shimasu, where [N] is the noun form (-masu stem) of the verb.

mataseru → matasemasu → matase

Literal meaning: “(I am sorry that) I did the act of making you wait”.

17) 行ってらっしゃい itte rasshai—go and come back

This is a set phrase used when someone is leaving the house.

行って itte is the simple conjunctive form of the verb 行く iku—to go.

いらっしゃる is the honorific form of the verb 来る kuru—to come. The simple imperative form is いらっしゃい irasshai. This is shortened in this set phrase to らっしゃい rasshai.

Literal meaning: “Go and come (back)”.

18) 行って来ます itte kimasu—I will go and come back

This is a set phrase said in response to 行ってらっしゃい itte rasshai.

行って itte is the simple conjunctive form of the verb 行く iku—to go.

来ます kimasu is the polite non-past form of the verb 来る kuru—to come.

Literal meaning: “I will go and come (back)”.

19) 失礼します shitsurei shimasu; 失礼致します shitsurei itashimasu—Excuse me

This phrase is used when you arrive somewhere, when you leave somewhere before other people leave, or if you need to ask someone to move out of your way.

失礼 shitsurei means rudeness.

します shimasu is the non-past polite form of する suru—to do.

致します itashimasu is the humble form of します shimasu.

Literal meaning: “I do rudeness”, “I am being rude”.

A similar set phrase is お邪魔します o-jama shimasu—”I am being a nuisance”, said when entering someone’s home.

20) お久しぶり o-hisashiburi—long time no see

久しい hisashii is an adjective meaning “long-extended”

振る furu is a verb with lots of unrelated meanings but here refers to “an period of time that has elapsed”

(In my former work, the words 上振れ uwabure—upward trend and 下振れ shitabure—downward trend were commonly used. In this case 振れ means something like deflection. The most basic meaning is “shake”, as in a dog wagging its tail.)

Literal meaning: “A long time since…”

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8 thoughts on “お帰りなさい o-kaeri nasai—welcome home (and other set phrases)

  1. I gotta few things to add!

    -the “-i to -ou” thing was more common in archaic Japanese, and the set phrases are holdovers.
    -kudasaru is more polite specifically because it indicates that the thing being given is travelling “downwards,” thus placing the giver in a position above yourself. To give is “ageru” for the exact same reason, and also why there are two words for “to give” (ageru and kudasaru), depending on whether the speaker is the giver or the receiver (and why you should be careful not to ask someone if they “morau”‘d an e-mail from you, rather ask if it has “come” yet!). In Japanese, the speaker gives upwardly and receives downwardly, with highly situational exceptions generally reserved for only the most brash and respected fictional characters.
    -irassharu, in addition to meaning “to come,” also means “to go” or “to be,” which is certainly fun.

    1. I was hoping that you would read and add some of your own insights, as well as correcting my mistakes (though maybe you are too polite to do that!) Thanks very much for the additional information, especially for shedding light on the “-ou” adjectives.

      I am still concerned about the terminology I used. Never having been taught Japanese grammar, I don’t know what English terms are normally used to express, for example, the difference of register between “iku” and “ikimasu”. In this post, I used the term “polite” to refer to the “-masu” form, but I am sure that’s wrong. Now I am thinking “informal” and “formal”?

      I also vacillated between “connective” and “conjunctive” to refer to the “-te” form.

      If you have any advice on this, I can edit the post accordingly.

      Or maybe the best advice is not to try to write authoritatively on subjects I know little about!

      1. Haha, nah, you did great!

        There is quite a large body of English words used to describe Japanese grammar, and none is especially better or worse than any other so it’s largely down to what you were told when you were first learning. What I call the dictionary form is also called the simple or plain form; you can talk about regular and irregular verbs, Type 1 and Type 2 verbs, ichidan and goudan, and -ru and -u verbs, and they all reference exactly the same distinction. Politeness levels have an entire set of their own (kenjougo, honorific, exultative), and so do a ton of other things.

        Really, as with all aspects of language, although some degree of standardization is obviously necessary, as long as we all know what’s being referred to, communication can occur, and as far as I’m concerned that’s all we need ask. ^-^

      2. I think the main potential for confusion is between “informal”/”formal” language on the one hand (iu/iimasu) and “honorific”/”neutral”/”humble” (ossharu/iu/mousu) language on the other hand. Combining these two types of distinctions gives you a 2×3 grid with 6 (theoretical) possibilities.

        My feeling is that the word “polite” would be better applied to the second, 3-way distinction, or maybe avoided entirely if it is likely to be misunderstood.

  2. This post bring back memories of set phrases I heard when I was in Japanese (for a short stay) a deca ago. Often heard “shimasu”, “so desu ne,” “so desu ka.” I walked around with a little dictionary but there it didn’t have these phrases! 🙂 doumo arigatou gozaimasu for explaining these set phrases and how/when to use them. 🙂

    1. I’m glad this post (dry as the subject matter is) brought back memories for you! It is impressive that you picked out those phrases and still remember them 10 years later.

    1. They are very necessary, and they are also very difficult. I wonder how many people have been scared off Japanese on their first lesson when they are faced with learning a dozen tongue-twisters like “doumo arigatou gozaimasu” just to be able to say the simplest things!

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