Japanese word nuances: 美味しい (oishii) vs. 美味い (umai) used to describe food

By | November 16, 2015

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.


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2 thoughts on “Japanese word nuances: 美味しい (oishii) vs. 美味い (umai) used to describe food

  1. Anika

    I am living in Tokyo and in an informal situation, all males use umai for food even foreign males.
    Boyish women use it as well, but it is not normal..

  2. Diego

    What took me half a year to realise is when at some sports practice, Japanese people would tell me “umai” they actually meant 上手! And me thinking all this time that it was funny they used the words delicious in sports…


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