Japanese honorific prefixes お and ご (‘O’ and ‘Go’)

By | March 21, 2014

In Japanese, the prefixes お  and ご are used to add a feeling of politeness or respect to a word. The usage of these two prefix is defined as follows:

  • お : used for words with the 訓読み(”kunyomi”), or Japanese reading. It is sometimes written in Kanij as 御.
  • ご : used for words with the 音読み (“onyomi”), or Chinese reading.

It would be great if it were that simple, but there are some tricky things about this pair which I’ll go over now.

For example, you can’t just arbitrary add these prefixes to any word, and some already have them ‘built in’. I’ll break it down into a few categories, with an example or two in each.

1. Words that work either with or without honorific prefixes

This is the simplest class where a word can be written normally, or with the appropriate honorific prefix for additional politeness.

  •  すし/ おすし
  •  しごと / おしごと

2. Words that change meaning when the honorific prefix is added

  • なか(中)= Inside
  • おなか (お腹)= stomach or abdomen
  • にぎり = a type of sushi where a slice of raw fish is placed upon an elongated rice ball
  • おにぎり = a rice ball, often triangular shaped, with nori on the outside and something inside (fish,

3. Words that change nuance when the prefix is added

  • ゆ = hot water
  • おゆ = hot water, but has a connotation of being more ‘clean’ and is probably water that is meant for drinking
  • はな = can be mean nose (鼻) or flower (花)
  • おはな = only used to mean flower

4. Words that typically use a honorific prefix but aren’t particularly polite or respectful

  • お尻 = butt
  • おなら = fart

You’ve probably noticed all of these examples used お, not ご. This is because these words are generally more frequent in Japanese, at least in my experience. One example of ご usage you’ll see commonly on online message boards is ご質問.

Actually, in some cases Japanese themselves can get confused whether ご or お should be used, and if you do a search in Japanese you’ll find several people asking on forums how to distinguish between these two. One case is お返事 vs ご返事. Technically speaking, ご返事 is correct since 返事 (へんじ) uses a chinese reading, but the word お返事 has become widely used. You can see this debate discussed here.

A related usage of お is to make a verb more polite. You can use the following pattern:

  • お + [verb in pre-masu form] + します

Here is an example of it’s usage using the verb 手伝う (てつだう, “to help”).

  • お手伝いしましょうか?
  • Shall I help?

One expression you’ll hear frequently on radio or podcasts is お送り[おおくり]します, which is used to mean “broadcast”.

As a general rule, don’t arbitrarily add these prefixes, only use them in cases where you’ve heard/seen a native use them. Using お or ご with a word where they are not typically used will sound unnatural, and in many cases it’s safe to just use the word without these.





(Featured image of nigiri taken from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salmon_nigiri.jpg)

(Visited 69,164 times, 5 visits today)

12 thoughts on “Japanese honorific prefixes お and ご (‘O’ and ‘Go’)

  1. chanteru

    honorifics are the bane of my Japanese language learning existence – it’s pretty much like whole new language (in my eyes anyway) T.T

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Yeah, they are one of the things that makes Japanese one of the hardest to learn (:

      The grammatical usage of them isn’t too bad, the real challenge is when and with whom to use them. You want to sound polite, but not over-polite…

  2. narutovu207

    Great post! I agree we’d better use the phrases as we have heard the natives do. When I wrote emails at work, I sometimes avoid the complication by using the 御 for both o and go.

  3. Learner

    I thought OnYomi was the Chinese reading??? You have written that Kunyomi is the Chinese reading.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      You’re completely right! I just corrected this post, thanks for pointing that out.

      I very rarely use the terms 音読み and 訓読み so it’s easy to mix them up (:

  4. Camille

    Hi. Thanks for the explanation.
    In the following sentence (it is from a famous poem by Misuzu Kaneko), is the お an honoric prefix ?

    (This is the complete sentence :
    お空はちっとも飛べないが )

    Many thanks in advance

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Yes, sometimes everyday words can have the お prefix as well. Often this can used for things in the natural world: お空、お水、お米、お猿さん、etc. I believe there is an implicit sense of respect for these natural things.

      To me “おそら” sounds like something I would read in a kids book, though, or something to say to a child. At least in modern Japanese.

      1. Camille

        Thanks you, that’s very insightful !
        It is a very simple poem, so maybe the idea is to speak to a child.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment! I was curious when would someone use “おはな” to mean “nose” instead of はな? I have never heard this before. To me it sounds like something a child would say, or do you think an adult would use this expression?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.