Cat got your tongue? Or do you have its?

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[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

If you’re Japanese, chances are it’s the latter.

Nekojita (猫舌 lit. “cat’s tongue”) is a phrase in Japanese most commonly used to describe people who can’t or don’t like to eat or drink hot things. The word means both the actual tongue itself and, by extension, a person with a cat’s tongue. In other words, it is a synecdoche.

The term is common in Japan, reflecting the fact that many people consider themselves to be/have cat tongues; in a 2018 survey of 10,000 Japanese of all ages, about half described themselves as nekojita. The results are summed up in the accompanying image, in which pink indicates those who answered yes to the question, “Are you nekojita?” As you can see, more than half of 10-49-year-olds consider themselves to have heat-sensitive tongues.

Nekojita is one of many words and expressions about sensitivity to heat and cold. I suspect this has a lot to do with larger East Asian health and medical traditions placing great emphasis on hot and cold. As I understand it, there are still many older Chinese, Japanese, and (I think) Koreans especially who don’t drink ice water and who are very cautious about anything that might overly cool the body. Anyway, some of the most frequently used expressions about hot and cold bodies and people are hieshō (冷え性) and atsugari/samugari (暑がり・寒がり). Atsugari and samugari mean, respectively, people who are always hot and always cold. I’m an atsugari, so I’m much more comfortable living here in Norway than where I was in the middle of Japan. Hieshō is more specific: it describes chronic cold, probably from poor circulation. It may overlap with Raynaud’s phenomenon, especially since it is also observed and reported most often in women, but there are also significant differences in the way it is described. For example, one authoritative Japanese dictionary (Daijisen 大辞泉) defines hieshō as a predisposition to cold, “especially in the lower body, common in women.” As an atsugari, I have no relevant experience to draw on.

There are a few expressions that use the word nekojita. Perhaps the most common is 猫舌の長風呂(入り) nekojita no nagaburo (iri). Basically, it means that nekojita enjoy long, warm baths as opposed to short, hot baths because  they don’t like overly hot water.

Nekojita is not a new word — authoritative Japanese dictionaries list examples of use from at least 400 years ago — but there are a few interesting recent developments.

One is that it has been adopted into Chinese, too. Baidu (百度) defines notes specifically that the term comes from Japanese, and offers many links and examples of the characters in use, some of which are for cat tongues, some for nekojita. I have no idea whether it’s in wider use, but given the popularity of Japanese pop culture media and their easy availability online, it’s not a huge surprise to see that at least some segment of the Chinese-speaking world is familiar with nekojita.

What might surprise some people more is that there is some interesting science behind nekojita―though this might also be pseudoscience. The contention is that the tip of the human tongue is very heat sensitive, so if your tongue tends to pull back when eating and drinking (“Good,” in the accompanying image), you’re probably not a nekojita, but if your tongue tends to sort of stick out (“Bad”), well, you’ve got a cat tongue.

Source for both images.

An interesting addendum about samugari: I learned recently that the English word for this is the relatively obscure “nesh,” which, it turns out, is also derogatory UK slang for a “soft,” “unmanly” man, a “softie,” or “softlad,” as it was explained to me. This notwithstanding, the Wikipedia and Wiktionary entries, with extensive etymologies and a summary of the OED and other dictionaries’ definitions, are worth a read.

Selected readings


  1. Jojo said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 8:25 am

    Langue de chat or cat's tongue also a very fine and refined kind of biscuit in France.

  2. Chas Belov said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 11:28 pm

    That's interesting because Japanese marketing also sells langue de chat cookies.

  3. Chas Belov said,

    June 17, 2022 @ 11:30 pm

    Let's try that again as a link rather than an embedded image.

    Langue de chat cookies

  4. David Morris said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 7:01 am

    When I was teaching English, I came to the conclusion that 'its' was never used independently – at least I had never consciously encountered it, and couldn't think of a plausible example. Then a few years ago I encountered it in the novel 'An Equal Music' by Vikram Seth. A violinist says of the violin he loves but has been lent to him by a benefactor and he must return to her family at some time "I’ve spent more time with it than with any living soul, but, well, it’s still not mine. And I’m not its."

    Even with two examples now, I'd still say that independent 'its' is very, very rare.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 9:48 am

    Never having previously encountered the word nekojita , and speaking so little Japanese that I could not even guess at the answer, my immediate thought was "is that 'j' as in English 'joke' or 'j' as in Czech 'Jan' ?" (it didn't even occur to me at the time that it might be 'j' as in Spanish 'mojito'). Not knowing the answer, I guessed at the Czech 'Jan' variant, then immediately wondered whether the 'oj' cluster was actually pronounced /ɔɪ/. Finally I asked Google translate to help me out, and learned that it is, in fact, 'j' as in English 'joke', or for that matter, 'j' as in English 'Japan'. So my underlying question is, short of using the IPA, is there any reliable way of representing the sound of 'j' as in English 'joke' when using the Latin alphabet to spell a foreign word ? 'g' is of course a candidate, but that might be equally be interpreted as 'g' as in English 'golf'. And I can't think of any cluster of Latin letters that indicate the sound /dʒ/ completely unambiguously. Would "dch" work ?

  6. Alexander Browne said,

    June 18, 2022 @ 8:41 pm

    Philip Taylor: You say "when using the Latin alphabet to spell a foreign word", which for me means the answer for me is … J. I'd never assume J was being used as /j/ or /h/. Obviously this is different if I know I'm reading a Central or Eastern European alphabet or Spanish, but never for a romanization.

    My only slight hesitation is that maybe sometime I'd think /ʒ/, but French was my first foreign language. French-style "dj" would work for me, but I've found it only confuses most Americans, who end up pronouncing the "d" as the letter (/di/) (also I also often hear with "d' ", like d'Artagnan.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 3:31 am

    I don't think one needs to go as far as central or Eastern Europe to experience "j" as /j/, Alexander. Germany is Western Europe, yet has "ja", "joghurt", "Johannes", etc., all with the /j/ sound.

  8. Alexander Browne said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 1:23 pm

    Grouping like that are inherently arbitrary, so it depends who's making the grouping, but I was including Germany in central Europe. (I'd happily call Germany western Europe with a binary eastern/western division.)

    But more to the point, I'm struggling to think of any romanization, created by or for English speakers – or at least not specifically for Germanic/Baltic/Slavic or Spanish speakers – that I've encountered that uses J for /j/ (or /h/). Again, I'm contrasting romanization with languages' own alphabets.

    As well, think of words English has borrowed, like "yacht". We kept the "ch" but changed the Dutch "j" to "y" since "j" for /j/ is just not very English-like.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 2:13 pm

    Alexander — I have been racking my brains trying to remember whether there are any English words in which 'j' is pronounced /j/, and I am delighted to report that there is at least one, and arguably two :
    1) Hallelujah (/ˌhæl ɪ ˈluː jə/), and arguably
    2) Majolica (/maɪ ˈjɒ lɪ kə/).
    As to 'j' pronounced /h/, again at least one and perhaps more:
    1) Navajo (/ˈnæv ə həʊ/)
    2) Marijuana (/ˌmær ɪ ˈhwɑːn ə/)

  10. Tor Arntsen said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 11:49 am

    I've never considered myself overly heat sensitive, quite the opposite – but I'm also well aware of the temperature limit which results in blisters in my mouth. But in Japan I frequently had to be careful with hot drinks and meals, and friends over there noticed and concluded (with a smile) that I had "cat's tongue". My Japanese wife seems to be able to handle higher temperatures than I can, not only limited to food and drink. Without getting blisters.

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