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Where people in English mind their Ps and Qs, speakers of Japanese have to know their o’s and go’s. These are the little prefixes that attach to all manner of words to make them sound more formal or polite. Known as bikago (美化語, embellishment words), it’s a relatively simple trick that works with the ornamental character 御 and its two main readings, o and go.

The textbook rule is that o pairs with indigenous Japanese words, whereas Sino-Japanese words go with go. Examples of the former are o-kome (お米, rice), o-kane (お金, money) and o-sake (お酒, sake). The second group contains words such as go-kazoku (ご家族, family), go-kyōryoku (ご協力, cooperation) and go-shinsetsu ni (ご親切に, friendly).

Unfortunately there are a number of non-indigenous words that take the o reading, too. For example, denwa (電話, telephone), which is normally beautified into o-denwa, not go-denwa. And there are also a few rare cases where just the opposite occurs: go-yukkuri (ごゆっくり, take your time), for instance, where go pairs with a native Japanese word.

Western loanwords cannot normally be embellished in this way, but when they are, they take o. O-toire (おトイレ, toilet), o-sōsu (おソース, sauce) and o-tabako (おタバコ, cigarettes) are the most frequent examples. Not to forget o-furansu (おフランス, France), the only country name for which Japanese grammar allows beautification. Albeit not quite seriously.

But the real problem with o and go is not word formation — it is usage. Here we have two concurring principles that frequently get in the way of each other.

The first one is that the prefix is used to express respect toward others, in which case it is taboo when talking about oneself. A classic example is namae (名前, name): When you ask someone for their name, you say o-namae wa? (お名前は). The o here clearly signals that you are talking about the other person; if it was your own name, it couldn’t be done with o. The same holds for quite a number of other expressions that take o/go only for the out-group, like o-genki (お元気, healthy), o-sumai (お住まい, home) and go-ryōshin (ご両親, parents).

The second rule is that o/go is used to express a polite or formal attitude in general. In such cases, it doesn’t matter whom the object in question belongs to. For example, when you ask someone who has come to your place the standard phrase o-cha demo nomimasuka? (お茶でも飲みますか, Would you like a cup of tea?), it’s factually your tea. Still, offering plain cha would be extremely rough. Another word where o is almost obligatory is o-kane (お金, money), whose o-less version sounds more like “dosh” or “dough.” And of course there’s go-han (ご飯, rice), where the honorific prefix has become completely unremovable. There is no such word as han (though there’s meshi (飯), another reading of the kanji reserved for hyper-informal situations).

The problem is that it is not always easy to know which of the two rules applies. Take, for instance, the term renraku (連絡, contact). Purists will claim that a distinction needs to be made depending on who does it. If you tell the other person you will be waiting to hear back from them, it’s their renraku, so it must be go-renraku wo o-machi shimasu (ご連絡をお待ちします). However, if you announce that you will get back to the other person, it should be the no-go phrase mata renraku itashimasu (また連絡いたします). In reality, however, many people feel more comfortable with go-renraku in the second case, too.

A common explanation here is that the act in question — making contact — is not something entirely owned by the sender, and it will necessarily involve the receiver too. The same applies to a number of other in-between actions where o/go is a possible, and in fact quite frequent, option when talking about oneself: o-shirase (お知らせ, notice), o-denwa (お電話, telephone), o-henji (お返事, reply) and go-issho (ご一緒, together), for instance, all of which need to involve another person to take effect.

A recent NHK survey asked people about their preferences regarding the use of o by TV announcers. They gave a list of 10 items, for each of which the acceptability of the prefix was to be evaluated. The highest score was obtained by miyage (土産, souvenir), which 83 percent found OK with o. It was followed by kome (米, rice), haka (墓, grave), sushi (寿司, sushi), furo (風呂, bath) and, yes, shiri (尻, backside), all of which scored over 70 percent. The only word with an acceptability rate lower than 60 percent was sekihan (赤飯, rice boiled with red beans), showing that most people do not take issue with these little embellishments even in such dry contexts as TV news.

So in case of doubt, and for lack of a better explanation, it’s definitely safer to disperse one or two excess o‘s and go‘s than accidentally omit one in the wrong place.

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