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Is ojiisan an idiomatic word choice for a chronologically gifted man, akin to obaasan for elderly women? For example, when giving your seat to them on the train.

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@sawa "idiomatic" is a common (non-technical) way to say "fluent" or "natural" (w/r/t language). "Idiom" is often used in a broader sense beyond the narrow technical one you give. So the question is essentially "Would it be natural to call an old man 'ojiisan' when giving him your seat on the train?", and simply noting that "grandpa" is similar to "ojiisan" does not answer this because the social context is different. There is nothing wrong with the question at all in my opinion. –  Matt Feb 9 '12 at 4:10
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This is not "idiomatic", just straight up dictionary definition of the word. –  Dave Feb 9 '12 at 15:46
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I find everyone's bickering and nitpicking quite rude. It doesn't matter what you think "idiomatic" means or doesn't mean here. Someone who knows the answer, please tell the original poster (and me, and anyone else who might want to know) what the words おじいさん and おばあさん mean, literally and figuratively, and what connotations these words might have, and how natural they are in the context. Any answer along these lines I'm sure will be sufficient. (And please stop attacking people for not knowing how to ask their questions - isn't that how everyone starts out?!) –  Billy Feb 11 '12 at 3:11
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@TsuyoshiIto: (1) This meaning of "idiomatic" was pointed out long before you stopped debating it. This in itself isn't bad, but the problem is the next point: (2) This is entirely reasonable, of course, but please consider how it looks to those who ask questions for you to nitpick and show no signs of writing an answer. If you're writing an answer and it's taking you a while, but you want to discuss issues irrelevant to the original question in the meantime, then that's fine, but in my opinion it's just sensible to point out that you're writing an answer, so as not to seem rude. –  Billy Feb 11 '12 at 20:04
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@mina-san: If you wish to continue this conversation, please take it to chat or meta. –  Andrew Grimm Feb 12 '12 at 23:43
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

おじいさん means both a grandfather and an elderly man. When written in kanji, it is written as お祖父さん when it means grandfather, and written as お爺さん when it means elderly man. The same applies to おばあさん (お祖母さん/お婆さん).

It is natural to call an elderly man おじいさん. However, I have heard that some people do not like the use of おじいさん and おばあさん which mean elderly man and woman, and that in particular they do not like to be called that way. I guess that the reason for this is that calling a person おじいさん or おばあさん may imply that the most relevant attribute of the person is his/her age. Although I do not find it reasonable, I may hesitate to call someone who I do not know at all おじいさん or おばあさん to avoid unnecessary conflict.

By the way, similarly to おじいさん and おばあさん, おじさん can mean an uncle or a middle-aged man, and written as 伯父さん (elder brother of parent), 叔父さん (younger brother of parent), or 小父さん (middle-aged man, but not commonly written in kanji). The same applies to おばさん (伯母さん, 叔母さん, 小母さん).

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You might also want to add similar uses of おねえさん and おにいさん. –  sawa Feb 11 '12 at 13:41
    
If one feels uncomfortable calling an elderly person ojiisan or obaasan or the elderly person feels uncomfortable hearing it, what would be the alternative? –  dotnetN00b Feb 11 '12 at 15:47
    
@sawa: Thanks for point it out. I will try to edit the answer when I have time, but for now I hope your mentioning in the comment is sufficient. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 11 '12 at 22:37
    
@dotnetN00b: An obvious answer is to use an age-neutral word, but then an obvious next question is what it is. Depending on what you want to say after that, words like すみません, あの, and ちょっと may work. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 11 '12 at 22:39
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@dotnetN00b: That is definitely very American English, and (as a Brit) I would feel awkward addressing anyone I didn't know as "sir" or "ma'am" or indeed anything. I don't think there are particularly natural-sounding words in British English, and I'd just go for "erm, excuse me" or words of the sort. So maybe it's not too strange to do so in Japanese either. :) –  Billy Feb 12 '12 at 21:59
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Note that you can also call middle-aged woman 奥さん and middle-aged man 旦那さん, ご主人さん. (What I mean by middle-aged is 35~55+). Not really used by young people, rather between middle-aged people or from staff to customer; さん becomes さま then.

As well, you can call young people (15~30) おにいさん/おねえさん even if they are younger than you. In Kansai, we call staff this way too (I believe it's not common in Tokyo area).

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Can I ask why this answer was downvoted? Is the information inaccurate? –  Billy Feb 12 '12 at 21:57
    
My owly thought is that it doesn't directly answer the OP's question. Although it does address sawa's request. Note, I did not downvote oldergod's answer. –  dotnetN00b Feb 13 '12 at 0:39
    
@Billy I think that the situation for 奥さん, ご主人さん, and perhaps for 旦那さん are different from kinship words like "おじいさん", "おばあさん", "おじさん", "おばさん", "おねえさん", "おにいさん". Leaving aside the fact that the former words have literal meanings different from what they are intended here and that they are politically incorrect under such usage, under the usage in question here, they are used by a third person in their practical usage ("wife" or "husband") which exists irrespective of the situation relevant here. They are used under the assumption that the person is actually a wife or husband of someone. –  sawa Feb 13 '12 at 1:14
    
@Billy If it turns out that the person is not married, then it would be awkward to use it. That means that this usage is different in nature from the usage of "おじいさん", "おばあさん", "おじさん", "おばさん", "おねえさん", "おにいさん" mentioned here. –  sawa Feb 13 '12 at 1:15
    
Not really. They are not used if you know the person is not married. But they are used if you don't know. –  oldergod Feb 13 '12 at 3:03
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