Boiling / boiled water

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Hiroshi Kumamoto (a specialist in Middle Iranian, especially Khotanese) sent in the following photograph of the sign on a water boiler in the Department of Linguistics at Tokyo University:

Since I wrote about the Chinese penchant for hot water in two recent Language Log posts ("Opens the waterhouse; open water rooms" and "Water between"), naturally I was game to take on this specimen of a water heating apparatus from Japan.

The directions posted on the heater read as follows:

Futtō shita oyu o tsukaitai baai nomi sāmosutatto daiyaru o "B" ni awasete kudasai.



I suppose one might interpret that to mean that, in all other cases (such as when you don't want to boil water), don't turn the dial to "B".

This is a fairly common problem in J-E / E-J translation: clause order is reversed, and a perfectly serviceable — if stilted or awkward — translation could be achieved simply by switching the clauses around. "Please turn the thermostat dial to 'B' only in case of using the boiled water" is pretty close to acceptable English. The translator has omitted the nicety of "wanting to", without which this version is never going to be better than "meh", but order change is definitely an improvement.

The English translation is surely not the most felicitous rendering that might be made of the Japanese. Here are some other possibilities:

"Only when you want to use boiling water, set the thermostat dial to 'B'."

"Turn the thermostat dial to 'B' only in the event that you would like to use hot water."

"Turn the thermostat dial to 'B' for hot water only."

"Turn the thermostat to 'B' when you want to boil water."


1. futtō shiteiru 沸騰している ("boiling") and futtō shita 沸騰した ("boiled") share the same meaning in the pre-nominal position / relative clause in Japanese. This is probably why it was translated here as "boiled water" instead of "boiling water". In English, "boiling water" and "boiled water" do not mean the same thing.

yu 湯 ("hot water")

futtō shiteiru yu 沸騰している湯 ("hot water which is boiling")

futtō shita yu 沸騰した湯 ("hot water which has reached the boiling point")

The verbs which behave this way in Japanese are those whose resultant state lasts at least for a while after the action is completed, e.g.:

kiru 着る ("wear")

haku 穿く ("wear")

motsu 持つ ("hold")

2. The 騰 in futtō 沸騰 is a very complicated, difficult kanji with a total of 20 strokes. It is somewhat surprising that the government did not come up with a simplified version when they designated 1,850 tōyōkanji 当用漢字 ("kanji for general use").

3. One wonders whether this is the only way to indicate the device in Japanese:

sāmosutatto daiyaru サーモスタットダイヤル ("thermostat dial")

As to what prompted Hiroshi to send me the photograph of the directions affixed to the water boiler in his departmental office, he mentioned to me that he had to live with that sign for 24 years. Now that he is retiring, I can imagine that it is with a combination of amusement and bemusement that he felt the need to unburden himself of having to look at that sign for nearly a quarter of a century by sharing it with someone outside who would appreciate its subtle nyuansu ニュアンス ("nuances").

I would not want to close this post without mentioning that, upon his retirement after teaching in the Department of Linguistics at Tokyo University for nearly a quarter of a century, Hiroshi Kumamoto (Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 1982) was recently gifted with a magnificent Festschrift by his colleagues. This substantial Festschrift has papers on Indo-Aryan, Indo-Iranian, Pwo Karen, Kurux, Latin, Georgian, Arabic, Tocharian, Hittite, Japanese, English, Mongolian, Talaud, Sanskrit, Sogdian, and other interesting subjects.

[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Hiroko Sherry, and Nathan Hopson]


  1. Rodger C said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    Long ago in graduate school, a friend who'd never made sassafras tea before complained that when she'd tried it, she got a black viscous liquid. It turned out that the tea was from Japan and the English instructions said to "boil 7 minutes" where the intended meaning was plainly "steep."

  2. Ethan said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    I find it curious that the knob itself is labeled "B" rather than, say, 温. Is there an out of sight "A", or is this "B" for "Boil"? How old is the Japanese penchant for using roman characters for short labels?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 1:50 pm


    The "B" is a setting on the dial and not the knob itself; it must stand for "Boil".

    The Chinese do the same thing, except that usually (though by no means always) the letter is based on a Mandarin word written in Pinyin. For example, in archeology, "M" before a number virtually universally stands for mù 墓 ("tomb"), e.g., M56 = "tomb 56" in an ancient cemetery).

  4. Ted said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    An idiomatic translation akin to VHM's last suggestion, and one where the phrase order is the same in English as Japanese, would be "To boil water, turn dial to B."

    This would also work in the contrapositive (which, as all good logicians know, is a perfectly valid equivalent). The emphasis is slightly different, but it is entirely suitable for ironic use: "Do not turn dial to B unless you want boiling water."

    By the way, am I the only one who finds it amusing that the Japanese translation for "thermostat dial" is "sāmosutatto daiyaru"?

  5. Cameron said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

    I felt compelled to download the paper on "Terms of Ornithomancy in Hittite" – just had to . . .

  6. Rick Robinson said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

    I'm not surprised that the Japanese for 'thermostat dial' would (apparently) be a loan phrase from English. But nyuansu as the Japanese for 'nuance?'

    On the other hand, the Online Etymological Dictionary says that 'nuance' only got into English in 1781. So the idea – or the preference for this word to express it – seems to be catching on among speakers of various languages.

  7. Philip Spaelti said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 8:36 am

    @Ted:An idiomatic translation akin to VHM's last suggestion, and one where the phrase order is the same in English as Japanese, would be "To boil water, turn dial to B."

    If that is really what is intended, then it is not just the English that is unidiomatic. This is not what the Japanese says. If B will cause the water to boil, then the Japanese would probably phrase this with a causative "沸騰させる."

    @Ted:The emphasis is slightly different, but it is entirely suitable for ironic use: "Do not turn dial to B unless you want boiling water."

    Unironically, this comes much closer to what the Japanese actually says: i.e., don't touch this button unless you want to use water that is already boiling (for some other purpose?).

  8. Ted said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

    Philip, since I'm purporting to translate from a language I don't speak, I'll confess guilt and accept responsibility. I'm sure you're right about the distinction in Japanese. But the same objection applies to the VHM example that I was editing ("when you want to boil water.")

    In any case, while I may have misinterpreted the function of the device as a water-boiler rather than a dispenser of boiling water, that's not a terribly significant distinction. My point would hold as well, I think, if I had written "For boiling water, turn dial to B," which would be consistent with the Japanese version as you describe it.

  9. Ted said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    My comment about the ironic value of the contrapositive, by the way, really goes to a different issue altogether, which I can perhaps explain best by pointing out that following two sentences are, as a matter of formal logic, equivalent:




  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

    The reference to a "very complicated, difficult kanji with a total of 20 strokes" reminds me that I am sure I am not the only one awaiting a post by Prof. Mair on the news that the surprise-best-seller new Mandarin translation of Finnegans Wake includes hitherto-unknown characters specifically invented by the translator for the purpose, as mentioned e.g. here: I assume they are probably new combinations of existing radicals that are half-understandable and create a similar effect to Joyce's tendency to coin semi-comprehensible new words via multilingual punning.

  11. Pedro said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

    Dear prof. Mair,

    I was just watching your lecture here: and you didn't answer why those scholars learnt Manchu in the first place. I'm wondering what the answer to your question is, and whether you refrained from talking more about it for fear of getting under people's skin. I find it a shame that the (supposedly massive) influence of Manchu on Northern Mandarin, and Putonghua, is still so little studied, as it seems.

  12. Chad Nilep said,

    April 5, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    @Rick Robinson "But nyuansu as the Japanese for 'nuance?'"

    In my experience 'nuance' would most typically be ニュアンス, though there is also 微妙 (bimyou), usually translated as "subtlety" or "delicacy".

    As English has Germanic/Italic doublets such as 'heart'/'cardio', it is not unusual for Japanese to have doublets or even Japanese/Chinese/English (or Portuguese) triplets. A well-know example is お手洗い (otearai), 便所 (benjo), and トイレ (toire) for "toilet".

    (Come to think of it, each of those comes from a euphemism: "washing hands", "convenience place", and "small cloth", respectively.)

  13. Chau said,

    April 6, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

    Thank you, Professor Mair, for mentioning the Festschrift in honor of Professor Hiroshi Kumamoto. I have long been interested in the spread of Aramaic script and its descendants throughout Central and South Asia, and have been intrigued by the fact that the Sogdians switched writing from horizontally to vertically. The article on the time of switch by Prof. Yoshida in the Festschrift is a godsend to me. Thanks.

  14. Nanani said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

    @Chad Nilep

    微妙(bimyou) has connotations of oddness, something not quite right. It's also an adjective (微妙なXO), not a noun. As a translator, I wouldn't use it for "nuanced", in any case. A Japanese reader would take it quite differently than an English reader seeing "nuanced".

  15. Keith said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 6:38 am

    Ted, you are not the only person "who finds it amusing that the Japanese translation for 'thermostat dial' is 'sāmosutatto daiyaru'". Even with my very limited knowledge of Japanese I recognized it.

    This article also touches upon the question of man-machine interface design and ergonomy… If there is only one dial on the machine, you don't need to refer to it by any kind of name: it is sufficient to refer to it as "the dial", so that the instruction can be simplified further.

    I would have rendered it as "For boiling-hot water, turn the dial to 'B'". The word "only" is superfluous, too.

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