Well, good afternoon/evening/morning/day everyone! Today we’re going to talk about Japanese greetings and what they really mean.
Just as in English, “Konnichiwa” or “Good day” is a greeting that is technically an idiom with a complex and near-forgotten past. Just as English language greetings tend to stem from bastardizations of foreign loan words and/or full sentences that have been gradually shortened over the years, “konnichiwa” is actually a shortened version of a full and meaningful greeting, because, if anything, human beings are a lazy sort with a bad habit of cutting corners whenever possible.
“Konnichiwa,” back in the day, was actually the beginning of a sentence that went, “konnichi wa gokiken ikaga desu ka?,” or “How are you feeling today?” (今日はご機嫌いかがですか？）
Building on that, it’s easy to see that the traditional Japanese greeting in the evening, “Konbanwa“ is basically the same thing, but with “this evening” substituted for “today” (今晩はご機嫌いかがですか？）.
When it comes to mornings, we deviate slightly with “ohayou“ or “ohayou gozaimasu“depending on how much you respect the recipient of the greeting (when it comes to my editor, he gets nothing but a curt, “ossu.”), which is spelled in Japanese, “お早う,” or, literally, “It’s early!” Again, humans being the lazy things we are, we can’t be bothered doing anything more than exclaiming about the ungodly hour every morning, so this is understandable.
There’s even more word origin fun to be had with Japanese greetings/idioms:
“Arigatou” or “Thank you” is spelled something like this in Japanese: 有難う, which, taken literally, means, “It’s hard that this exists.” In other words, you’re expressing gratitude for someone doing something difficult or going out of their way for you.
“Gochisousama,” the traditional phrase uttered after a fulfilling meal, and spelled “ご馳走様,” in Japanese literally means, “You ran around!” It sounds weird to an English speaker, of course, but it’s meant to recall a hard-working chef hustling to and fro to prepare a meal.
“Itadakimasu,” the phrase one is supposed to say just before tucking into a meal, on the other hand, is spelled “頂きます,” or literally, “I take!” While it sounds a little blunt and self-serving in English, it’s not hard to understand that this honorific phrase is used to express gratitude to the chef or host.
“Otsukaresama” is a greeting you’ll hear a lot around Japanese offices, schools and any other place where people work hard. The Japanese, “お疲れ様,” literally meaning, “You look tired!” The 様 part, which appears in a lot of these greetings/idioms, is hard to explain in English, but it stems from the Japanese の様 (“no yo,” or, “as if”), which denotes an observation on the part of the speaker.
“Omedetou,” (“Congratulations!”) is a more complicated animal, and even after some research and asking Japanese friends, we still aren’t entirely sure of this word’s origins. But, it appears that it stems from the verb, “mederu” （愛でる）, “to treat importantly,” combined with “itashi” (甚し), “very.” In other words, you are acknowledging to someone that their accomplishment is “very important” to you. Note that the current kanji characters used for this, “お目出度い,” are actually what is referred to as “ateji” or kanji characters assigned to fit the sound of the word, rather than the other way around, and have nothing to do with the word’s meaning/origin.