I’m always amazed at the differences in nuances between words that seem so similar at first glance. Oftentimes these subtleties are not described in a dictionary anywhere, and the only way to really get them is to ask a native, or spend many years of your life immersed in that culture hoping you can acquire the linguistic sensibility of a native.
In today’s post I’d like to talk about two words, which both are typically used to be describe good-tasting food. They are おいしい (oishii) and うまい (umai).
The former of these, “oishii”, is typically taught in textbooks as a standard way to say food tastes good, which would roughly parallel with English “This is great” or “This tastes good”. It can also be used to express a good-sounding offer, 美味しい話” (oishii hanashi).
“umai” fundamentally means someone is good or skillful at something, as in the expression “口が美味い” (kuchi ga umai), which means something like a smooth talker or someone who is good at swaying others. It is somewhat similar to 上手 (jouzu) for this usage. However, it can also be used to mean “tasty” in a way similar to “oishii”.
I remember a long time ago when I first started studying Japanese, a good friend of mine had told me a story where he was corrected by a Japanese person who said he should not use “umai” in a certain situation. I don’t remember the exact details, but I think he said something about how it was less polite than “oishii”.
I brought up this topic with a Japanese person today, and she confirmed that “umai” is definitely less polite. She used the following words to describe it:
- 下品 (gehin): crude
- 下町 (shitamachi): downtown (in this case, sort of the opposite of culturally refined)
- 砕けた (kudaketa): slang (literally “broken”)
She recounted a story where she saw that word used in a children’s book, and how that somehow felt inappropriate, since it be unusual for a child to use this word. However, for older males she said she felt it would be perfectly normal.
So there does seem to be a significant difference between these words, although when exactly is safe to use “umai” is a bit unclear. Personally I try to keep to using more “oishii”, though if the mood strikes me I will throw in “umai” once in a while. At minimum, you may want to consider at least using “oishii” whenever you are speaking with polite Japanese (ie. desu/masu forms).
Even if I were to interview 100 Japanese people and get a good consensus on these two words, I’d bet that would change in the next decade or so, since Japanese seems to be evolving at a pretty fast pace these days.
Note: In the title I wrote these words in Kanji, but in practical use I think the their hiragana forms are more common.