In English it seems that cold is just always cold just as warm and hot regardless of whether the word describes a person's experience or the actual physical state of an object. In Japanese however there seems to be a strange case where when describing a cold weather versus a cold drink you would use the words [寒]{さむ}い or [冷]{つめ}たい respectively, which both seem to translate to the word cold in English. This difference has always been confusing to me and I can't seem to develop a rule-of-thumb to follow in order to choose the right word for the right situation.

I've heard it described by some native Japanese speakers that 寒い should be used for things that you cannot touch. My assumption is that by "cannot touch" this is referring to things in a more abstract concept such as weather or the day and not things that are simply out of reach physically such as a distant planet, however I haven't been able to confirm the last case.

Another point that I think is interesting is that the words warm and hot in English do not seem to have the same Japanese word counterparts where one is more direct translation and the other means "to the touch" but instead warm and hot in Japanese appear to be simply あたたかい and あつい respectively. Am I missing something, perhaps there are other word analogies for these other adjectives of which I'm just unaware.

As requested here are a few examples that demonstrate my confusion as far as proper usage of these two words.

  • 空気は寒い when speaking of feeling of the air when stepping out of the house.
  • 水は冷たい when wading through some cold water.
  • 私はさむい when describing one's physical feeling caused by any of the above.
  • could you go into more depth about your Hot warm reference, not sure what you are saying there. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 2:31
  • Perhaps you could provide some examples of scenarios in the past where you have been confused about which was the right adjective to use?
    – rcjsuen
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 2:35
  • @Mark Hosang & @rcjsuen - I've made the requested edits to my original question to help clarify my confusion.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:31
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    I cannot explain the reason, but I find both 空気は寒い and 空気が寒い unnatural, and instead prefer to say 空気が冷たい if we really want to talk about the air explicitly. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 6:09
  • @Tsuyoshi - Ok, perhaps this eludes to the fact that air is recognized as tangible so that 寒い is really reserved to more abstract concepts like weather. I wonder if there are any other cases where it is used.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 10:02

7 Answers 7


"冷たい" is used for physical objects that are cold to the touch.

  • Ice is "冷たい". A surface is "冷たい". A person can be "冷たい". Water is "冷たい".

"寒い" is the feeling you get when cold, or something that causes that feeling.

  • Weather is "寒い". You can get "寒い" after touching a "冷たい" thing. The atmosphere of a situation can be "寒い" (if many "冷たい" people are present).

'The water was cold, now I'm cold.'

"Warm" has the to-the-touch differentiation only in its writing. "熱い" is hotter than "暖かい". "暖かい" implies a good feeling usually, while "熱い" can mean unpleasantly hot.

  • Weather is "暑い" or "暖かい", while coffee would be "熱い" or "温かい".
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    Ahhh, so warm and hot do have analogues but they just happen to be pronounced the same as their "to the touch" counterparts only differing when in written form.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:17
  • I have heard 冷たい used for describing people as well, as in a cold and indifferent attitude. Which I believe makes that usage a hybrid of the differences between 寒い and 冷たい. It's atmospheric, in that it describes their attitude, but people can technically be touched, so it is inline with the idea that 冷たい is for tangible objects.
    – Questioner
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:54
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    @Dave Yes, as I wrote, people can be 冷たい. I'd say that expresses that the person is made of ice, hence cold to the touch. In his presence you may become 寒い, but the person himself is not 寒い (that would have a different meaning). His atmosphere would be 冷たい as well (paradoxically?).
    – deceze
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 4:04
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    I noticed after I wrote my comment that others had addressed the same issue. And here I was thinking I was clever. Agreed that it has a metaphorical component, implying that the person is a cold object, and therefore 冷たい applies. However a long conversation could be had about what "person" refers to in this situation, as I don't think it's their body, but their actions and personality, which are intangibles. That gets into an area that isn't specifically about Japanese language, though, but generally about how humans model the world in their minds.
    – Questioner
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 4:06
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    (1) It is not strictly necessary to be able to touch to use use 冷たい. For example, 空気が冷たい and 風が冷たい. For a figurative sense (as in 冷たい人), it is possible to say 態度が冷たい and 視線が冷たい. (2) “The atmosphere of a situation can be 寒い (if many 冷たい people are present).” I do not think that this usage exists. There is a phrase お寒い状況 (which means a situation which is disappointing because it is far from expectation and/or ideal situation), but it is different from what you wrote. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 16:59

"寒い" is typically used to describe weather, "冷たい" is used to describe a cold physical object.

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    With one caveat, 寒い(samui) also seems to describe a persons physical experience of a relatively cold temperature. So one could feel cold air and state that it feels 冷たい when they walk out of the house but after a walking about in the winter air for an more than an hour they may describe themselves as 寒い. In this case samui seems to describe the experience of being physically cold and I'm assuming it is reserved for humans but it may be used to describe the experience of cold temperatures for other living things such as animals perhaps.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 10:07
  • 2
    samui is also used when a joke bombs, same way we might use 'lame' in English
    – Ali
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 15:46

冷たい is for stuff, 寒い is for atmosphere. The same goes for 熱い/暑い and 温かい/暖かい, but those are pronounced exactly the same.

  • 2
    Watch out for the order you write: among the six words you wrote, 冷たい (cold), 熱い (hot) and 温かい (warm) are for objects and 寒い (cold), 暑い (hot) and 暖かい (warm) are for weather. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 2:41
  • Oops, yeah. Editing.
    – Nate Glenn
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 2:41
  • also remember that 冷たい can be used figuratively, as in "that guy's attitude is very 冷たい towards me."
    – makdad
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 2:50
  • @makdad - That figurative usage is a particular one that always throws me off. If さむい is to be used to describe more intangible or abstract concepts such as weather then attitude seems like it fits more in that category than using a term that generally means "cold to the touch". I suppose this is just another case of natural language being somewhat arbitrary in nature.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:01

Consulting the yahoo.co.jp dictionary definitions for 寒い and 冷たい, we can see that the difference between the two is that 寒い is an unpleasant sensation of low temperature, whereas 冷たい is merely an observation that the temperature of something is lower than normal. So it would seem that 寒い is more subjective (because one person's 寒い might be pleasant to someone else), but 冷たい is an objective judgment of cold.

  • I have to admit that I like this explanation because it is very logical however I'm tempted to doubt that it is this simple. Going off of the assumption that it is correct however, I suppose this would rule out 寒い for scientific purposes as it is more of a subjective description of a persons tolerance to a particular temperature. So it would be strange to say something like the planet Neptune's moon's are 寒い since it's unrealistic that anybody would ever touch it and thus should never be able to equate it to a personal sense of unpleasantness.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:12
  • You're right in that it's not this simple. Categorizing and definitions help up to a point, but beyond that it's best to see it in actual usage (such as the examples elsewhere on this page) and let your brain naturally figure out the difference. Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 13:34

your japanese friend was correct in the being able to touch part. Typically the air is samui and coffee would be tsumetai.

  • Doesn't air also get "touched" though? I don't understand why air is any different than a cold drink in terms of the human experience when it comes to temperature.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:04
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    I think with present definitions of science, you are correct we are touching the air. But if you think about when Japanese was created, the air probably wasn't something you could touch conceptually. Another way to explain the "touchable" would be to change it to "stuff you can pick up" Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:08
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    I've come up with the same explanation myself for why air may have been given special terms in that in that air/gas isn't precievably tangable in the same way that solids and liquids are so using a words that normally describes intangble materials for air makese sense in that case. I'm curious why the use of 冷たい in modern times isn't acceptable however since it is more technically correct given the fact that gasses are still just another form of matter. I'm assuming scientific literature must have a preference for describing relatively cool temperatures of a gas.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:36
  • tangible/intangible... those were the words i was looking for Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 4:57

Another use: People can be つめたい, exactly as in English: Being cold to someone, by having no empathy or being unfriendly. Usually written such as 心が冷たい.

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    Conversely, they can also be あたたかい/あったかい ("warm")... Kansai people are stereotypically described as more あったかい than Tokyo people...
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 14:07

I can't think of a situation in which 冷たい would apply to anything but food or drink. It think it's also mostly a positive feeling (a cool/cold drink), where 寒い seems to be mostly undesirable. For cool weather, etc., though, you would use [涼]{すず}しい.

An idiomatic usage of them is where さむい is used sarcastically like after someone tells a bad joke, and 冷たい is used to say that someone is cold/unforgiving/harsh.

  • 2
    I've heard 冷たい used to describe unpleasant things as well though such as jumping into a frozen lake or having an ice cube slipped down your shirt. So it seems like there is still something about the word さむい that makes it inapplicable to common cases where a person physically feels an object except for air. Strangely it seems that the word さむい is used in general when somebody describes their reaction to being cold such as when jumping into cold water or air but when you ask them to describe the water itself they use つめたい or at least that's what I recall at the moment.
    – jpierson
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 3:06

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