JOK Notebook

Choking Back the Words

People universally associate throats with choking. How can you not, when the throat is so vital yet so vulnerable to a life-threatening blockage? One of my earliest memories is of my sister's choking in a Chinese restaurant on a crispy noodle. I remember that my father held her upside down, though perhaps it's my memory that has turned things upside down. I know, for sure, though that that noodle could have been lethal, and I was terrified of Chinese food for years afterward.

Come to think of it, there was another choking episode in my early life. The kid next door (whose name was Adam, prompting no end of teasing) raced over to our house to say that his mom was choking on a cookie. By the time my father arrived to do the Heimlich maneuver, she had a butcher's knife out and was ready to slit her own throat. Fortunately, she didn't have to. My father saved the day and then insisted that we all learn the Heimlich. 

He's looking pretty good right about now, isn't he?!

As widespread as literal choking may seem to be, figurative choking is far more common. I don't mean the kind athletes experience when they can't make that all-important basket or whatever. I'm talking about the words we choke back on a daily basis.

The Japanese, the masters of what is not said, have a good way of referring to that restraint. Using 喉元 (のどもと: throat), they say things like this:

He held back his words.

せり上がる (せりあがる: to rise gradually); 言葉 (ことば: words); どうにか (to manage to); 呑み込む (のみこむ: to hold back, swallow, in which 呑 is non-Joyo)

Whereas English speakers hold in unpleasant words by figuratively biting their tongues, the Japanese speakers do the equivalent by not allowing those sharp words to escape from the throat into the mouth. Thus, the man in this scenario held back words that felt as if they were rising in his throat. People also use this phrasing for holding back emotions such as anger that could easily turn into harsh comments.

And when are people most likely to make harsh comments? From my experience as a waitress I believe it's when they're hungry and aren't getting the food they crave, either because it hasn't become available fast enough or because it doesn't taste right.

People around the world might kick up a fuss at such a time, but of course the Japanese choke back the words. My proofreader taught me something about that this week.

We were talking about this term:

喉越し (のどごし: feeling of food or drink going down one’s throat)
     throat + passing through

It's neutral; we don’t know from 喉越し whether swallowing is a great experience or not. To say that something tastes bad, you can take 喉越し and add の悪い, where 悪い (わるい) means "bad." You could say the opposite by adding の良い, where 良い (よい) means "good."

So far that makes sense. If so, then how would you interpret this comment:

「喉越しがね …」

I'm accustomed to seeing ね at the end of a sentence, but this is hardly a sentence. The comment is incomplete, a clipped version of 喉越しが悪いですね. A native speaker would therefore hear 喉越しがね … as a criticism of the food or drink. 

"I think we tend to omit negative words if we can understand the intention," my proofreader told me. So if something tastes good, people opt for the full expression 喉越しが良いですね. But if something tastes bad, they hold back to some extent.

Writing essay 2007 on 喉 taught me many other things, including this surprising point—the Japanese like to use "pretty expressions" in ads. 

My proofreader and I were talking about this phrase:

喉を潤す (のどをうるおす: to appease one’s thirst; wet one’s whistle)
     throat + to moisten

And she said that although it's a very common expression, people don’t use it in daily conversation. It sounds literary, so one encounters it in novels (which makes sense) and in ... wait for it ... TV beverage commercials! Really? Japanese TV ads sound literary?! I can’t imagine a Budweiser commercial in which someone quotes Shakespeare! 

She explained that the Japanese like to use “pretty expressions” in ads and that literary phrases are suitable for that.

As I thought about the contrast between that idea and the ads I see on TV in the United States, I had to choke back my laughter ... and maybe some tears!

Here's a sneak preview of essay 2007 on 喉 (throat; singing voice):

Have a great weekend!


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