The trouble with insufficient samples: The Japanese word 偉い (erai) and it proper usage

By | June 26, 2016

When learning words in a foreign language, the only way to get a full understanding is to gather data from as many sources as possible: dictionaries, media (fiction/nonfiction) and of course as many real-world situations as possible. I see this is as chiseling away the various subtleties of this word little by little until you have the whole picture, which can take a great amount of data. I like to use terminology borrowed from statistics call these “samples” of data.

I have a long history with the word “偉い” (erai). Some years ago, I had told someone a little older than me I was studying Japanese using various methods and she had described me as “偉い”, which I took to mean a complement. Then, years later, I had heard that word used to describe a small child who had done a good something with something, and eventually started using that word frequently with my son when he did a great job.

The other day I was talking with a Japanese guy who said he had started his own company, to which I responded “偉いですね”, making an attempt to compliment him. But he just made an awkward face said “偉いっていうのかな?” implying I might have said something that didn’t quite fit the situation. I eventually said ”憧れます” (akogaremasu) which was a better word for the situation.

After that, I did some research and learned this term is perfect for using with kids, but isn’t really appropriate for using against adults, unless the person speaking is clearly more experienced with respect to what is being discussed. This is because “erai” generally has the feel of looking down on someone (見下る). So unless I happened to be an experienced entrepreneur having started up a few of my own companies, it probably would be best for me avoid saying “erai” in the context of someone who opened their own business.

When I asked what would have been a better phrase to use in my situation, I was told simply “すごい” (sugoi)  (:

Going back to the first time I heard this word, I guess maybe that person had been looking down on me, or just using the expression carelessly. Or maybe it was appropriate since she was a Japanese person, clearly skilled in the area of Japanese. While I couldn’t have known the intention she used the word with, in the years following that I should have picked up on where the word was *not* used, which was in the context to compliment an adult, especially when you’ve just met them and are clearly less experienced than them in the area in question.

This is a good example where the dictionary doesn’t help understand the subtleties of words because it doesn’t say anything about the nuance I described above. It has lists the definitions “great” (“すぐれた”) and “admirable” (“賞賛すべき), along with some other things. By the way, another usage of this word is to mean “to a large extent” , for example in the phrase “偉い違い” which means “big difference”. One other usage of this word is “偉そう(に)” [erasou (ni)] which is used to refer to someone who is acting like they are all high and mighty.



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5 thoughts on “The trouble with insufficient samples: The Japanese word 偉い (erai) and it proper usage

  1. Sylvia Hume

    Very interesting, you are right the dictionary does not convey this understanding of the word. My dictionary describes this word as great or eminent, which is pretty open ended as you say. It must have been somewhat disappointing to be told Sugoi was more appropriate. I enjoy your insights, keep them up!

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment! Glad that others can benefit from my experiences (:

  2. Ed

    as if that’s not confusing enough, apparently “erai” can also, in some contexts, mean “troublesome, awful, terrible”, although nobody on the internet seems to have a good explanation of exactly when that usage applies. 🙁

  3. Rei

    I think 偉い isn’t exactly used when looking down on people in a sense as people use 偉い for higher positioned people like principals, bosses etc. Like 偉い人

    But I guess like some Japanese words, it could be that kinda word that becomes different depending on the context???

    1. locksleyu Post author

      It isn’t explicitly about looking down on people, but depending on how you use it, it can have a negative nuance.


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