Japanese False Cognates as Mnemonics

When two words in different languages coincidentally have similar sound and meaning, they are called false cognates. They’re ‘false’ because they don’t actually share a common etymology (at least within traceable linguistic history). True cognates, conversely, do share a common etymological origin. There aren’t really any true cognates in Japanese-English until recent history with actual loan-words and wasei-eigo.

Nonetheless, not unlike similar traits arising independently in evolution, false cognates do happen and these happy accidents can serve as great mnemonics. Then with a little creativity, false-near-cognates can broaden the trick.

Here’s a list of false-cognates or false-near-cognates I’ve come across and found to be helpful little language boosters. Again, since these are false cognates, this list excludes foreign katakana loan words. がんばてね


なまえ(namae) = name. My namae is this is gonna be やさしeasy-peasy!

すべり(suberi) – sounds like slippery. It means slipping or sliding.

つなぐ(tsunagu) – sounds like snug. It means to tie or connect together.

おい(oi) – an exclamation to get someone’s attention. Means the exact same thing in English. It’s even spelt the same.

そう(sō) – thus or in such a way. It pretty closely matches one sense of the English ‘so.’

もう(mō) – means also or more. It sounds like a lazy pronunciation of ‘more.’

え(e) – sounds just like ‘eh.’ Used at the beginning of a sentence, means ‘eh?’ or ‘huh?’ Be careful of tone, since it can also mean ‘yeah.’ Variation: ええ

ね(ne) – attached at the end of a sentence to soften a claim, check for agreement, or express agreement. Similar sound and usage to the Canadian ‘eh?’ (but I think it’s slightly more assertive).

よ(yo) – another sentence final particle used for emphasis or exclamation. It can be similar to the 90’s slang, yo.

お手洗い(otearai) – coincidentally sounds a lot like toirei, the Japanese romanization of toilet. It means toilet, restroom, or literally hand-washing.

かぎ(kagi) – means key. Apart from just sounding close, ぎ’s cousin isき(ki) and they both look like keys. And if you say it fast, kagi sounds like car-key.

骨(hone) – it sounds like bone. It means bone.

起こる(okoru) – to happen. Sounds like ‘occur.’

国(kuni) – means country. If you drop the ‘tr’ in country, you get coun’y.

きゅうり(kyuri) = cucumber. kyucumber.

ただいま(tadaima) – said when you return home. I like to hear it as, “Ta-da, I’m-a [home].”

売買(baibai) – no, it doesn’t mean “bye-bye” (that’s バイバイ). The kanji literally mean sell and buy, so this compound means trade. I like to remember it as “Buy!Buy!”

輪(rin) – this kanji means ring or circle. The kunyomi reading is ‘wa,’ but the onyomi is pronounced ‘rin,’ which sounds like you just dropped the ‘g’ from ring. Since it’s onyomi, it mostly only shows up as ‘rin’ in kanji compounds like 輪番(rotation), 輪形(ring-shaped),  車輪(wheel), and even 一輪車(unicycle). By itself, the rin reading is also the counter for wheels and flowers.


Then there are words that are kind of alike, or at least sound close enough (to me) to be helpful:

窓(mado) – means ‘window.’

寺(tera) – means ‘temple.’

すぐ(sugu) – means ‘soon.’

軍(gun) – means ‘army, troops, force, etc.’ i.e., English guns.

意味(imi) – means ‘meaning.’ Sounds like ‘meanie’ (as in miny moe) which sounds like ‘meaning.’

飛び出して(Tobi-dashite) – 飛び means to fly. 出す means to put out. Together means flying out or rushing out. So it can also mean ‘dash out.’ A long way of saying dashite sounds a lot like ‘dash.’

市(shi) – means city. Sounds like the first syllable of ‘city’ (with a Japanese accent). Welcome to the city part of town.

理(ri) – means reason. As used in: 理由(riyu) – reason (pretext, motive); 理性(risei) – reason (faculty).

箱 (hako) – means box. When used in compounds, it is sometimes pronounced bako as in ゴミ箱(gomi-bako) – garbage box.


Some kana even strike me as false cognates audio-visually:

の looks like a stylized n, and that rounded shape is easy to associate with o

ん looks like an n with a long top

た also looks a bit like ta


Then, if you bend your head a little…

か could be a k with a detached arm

う looks like a sideways u

よ looks like a y whose tail has been bent around in a loop

そ looks like a backwards s


All well and good. But a word of caution. False Friends, like false cognates, are similar sounding words in different languages, but with radically different or even opposite meanings. So cross-language homonyms are double-edged swords. But if you’re careful they can also be used as mnemonics:

イギリス(igirisu) – England. Not only does this not sound like its namesake, it actually sounds like another country entirely: Greece [which is pronounced Girisha]

間近(majika) – means close or near. Sounds like magical or Magikarp. So make a silly mnemonic like ‘the magic is close’ or whilst playing Pokémon Go, ‘Magikarp is nearby.’

夏休み中 (natsu-yasumi-chu) – a phrase I hear a lot at school around summer time, literally means ‘during summer vacation.’ But I swear when Japanese people say it, it sounds like “nice to meet you.”

ありそうな (arisōna) – means probably. But this phrase always jumps out at me because I’m from Arizona.

おはよう(ohayō) – good morning! Sounds like another U.S. state: Ohio. Ohayō, Ohio!

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