Because Language Log readers are already familiar with this "most useful word in the Japanese language", and because of its highly polysemantic and multifunctional quality (see the very nerdy, thorough, and entertaining discussion of the various meanings and applications of "sumimasen" on Tofugu, "Sorry for Saying Thank You: The Many Uses Of Sumimasen"), I have decided to leave it untranslated, even in the title of this post. The purpose of the present piece is to further explore the subtleties, nuances, and history of "sumimasen", in hopes not only that this exceptional Japanese word will be better appreciated, but that it will be used more appropriately by those of us who were not born to it.
Help comes in the form of the following notes provided by Cecilia Segawa Seigle
Thank you for your blog concerning "sorry" and "sumimasen."
Indeed, we Japanese say "sumimasen" or "gomennasai" (and in this connection "thank you," too). And I have heard comments and criticism on this matter. But there is quite a difference among people depending on individual personality. For example, I tend to apologize a lot, and maybe unnecessarily.
It's not as though we feel guilty that much, but those of us who dislike causing unpleasantness or less than a perfect satisfaction to others, feel responsible for failing.
We were brought up being taught to be responsible for our actions, and never never cause annoyance or unpleasantness to other people 他人に迷惑 をかけてはいけません。 So we can't help it.
About the British saying "sorry" a lot, I think they used to say "pardon" a lot, rather than "sorry."
When I was a child, I remember reading an essay by someone who, when he was in England for the first time, kept hearing — at a theater for example — everyone saying "pa—n" "pa—n", and didn't understand what it was. After a while he realized they were saying "pardon," "pardon," as they went through the crowd of the theater. I never forgot that. I have been to England (mainly London) a number of times, but I did not notice "pardon" or "sorry" so much — maybe I was usually preoccupied with other interesting things.
In Japan, however, I do hear "sumimasen," "gomennasai" a lot. I have a girlfriend who apologizes for everything. It's as though she is apologizing for her existence.
"How are you, Toshiko-san, are you feeling all right?"
"Sumimasen, I am all right" while she is saying this, she is bowing.
"Toshiko-san, you have no reason to apologize!"
"You are really something!"
This goes on all day! And in her case it's always "sumimasen," not "gomennasai."
Among many of us, "sumimasen" becomes "suimasen," especially in Tokyo.
The etymology of "sumimasen" is interesting. During the Edo period, there was a lot of trouble over money among people; purchasing and paying, loaning and returning, and so forth and so on.
When everything was paid back and cleared, it was expressed by the verb "sumu" (done 済む). In other words it was finished, cleared.
When something remained in debt, it was "sumanu" or "sumanai", which became "sumimasen". Now, however, most situations involving sumimasen are not related to money trouble. Money trouble today cannot be remedied by merely saying "sumimasen".
"Sumimasen" is such a fine and handy expression that I'm often tempted to use it even when I'm speaking English or some other language and when I know full well that the person to whom I'm talking wouldn't understand it. "Sumimasen" has a nice ring to it and expresses perfectly the feeling of inadequacy or incompleteness in one's dealings with others.
Much more elegant than "my bad", more refined even than the popular meaning of "mea culpa", and altogether different from the feeling of sorrow, distress, pain, and grief that lies at the root of "sorry".