How to Ask for the Definition of a Word in Japanese (Sentence Patterns #4)
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
You can ask for the meaning of a Japanese word by saying the unknown word, followed by はどう言う意味ですか (wa dou iu imi desu ka).
Alternatively, if you are talking with someone who speaks both Japanese and English, you can ask them for an English translation of an unknown Japanese word by saying the word, followed by は英語で何ですか (wa eigo de nan desu ka).
Sentence Structure #1
[Word] wa dou iu imi desu ka.
What does [word] mean?
This phrase is tricky to understand since it cannot be translated directly into English. The direct translation of “X はどういう意味ですか” would be “As for X, how to say meaning?” This sounds like nonsense in English—therefore, it is best to remember this as a set phrase.
Tobikiri wa dou iu imi desu ka.
What does “tobikiri” mean?
(If you’re curious, とびきり means “exceptional.”)
Sentence Structure #2
[Japanese word] は英語で何ですか。
[Japanese word] はえいごでなんですか。
[Japanese word] wa eigo de nan desu ka.
What is [Japanese word] in English?
In many cases, it will be difficult to understand the definition you are given if you follow Sentence Structure #1. If you don’t know much Japanese, the explanation will probably contain new words that you also don’t know the meaning of.
Therefore, if you are talking with someone who can speak English and Japanese, it is better to use Sentence Structure #2 instead. When you use Sentence Structure #2, you aren’t asking for a definition or examples—you are simply asking for an English translation.
This sentence structure can be deconstructed as follows:
は= topic-marking particle
英語 = English language
で = a particle meaning “using”
何 = what
です = copula (essentially does the same job as the verb “is” in English)
か = question-marking particle.
This structure translates roughly as “As for [unknown word], what is it using English?” The full translation would be “What is [unknown word] in English?”
Tobikiri wa eigo de nan desu ka.
What is “tobikiri” in English?
Sentence Structure #3
[English word] は日本語で何ですか。
[English word] はにほんごでなんですか。
[English word] wa nihongo de nan desu ka.
What is [English word] in Japanese?
Sentence Structure #2 also works in the opposite direction. If you want to know the Japanese word for an English term, you can use the same pattern, replacing 英語 with 日本語.
「Dragon」wa nihongo de nan desu ka.
What is “dragon” in Japanese?
(By the way, “dragon” is “ryuu” in Japanese.)