I was amused by, and interested in, this little sign on a water dispenser in a sandwich shop:

water dispenser

The options are that you can have ice only, ice and water, or just water.

What intrigued me was that water, 水{みず}, is preceeded by an honorific , but ice, 氷{こおり}, is not.

Both are being served to a customer, so why not お氷{こおり}?

  • 5
    Because freezing the water squeezes out most of the impurities. Dec 29, 2011 at 16:49

3 Answers 3


The reason is fairly simple, but probably not going to going to be as pattern based as you would hope.

お[水]{みず} is an example of a segment of Japanese known as [美化語]{びかご}, this is more or less means being more polite by using a nicer sounding word.

Some example of this are

[食]{た}べる instead of [食]{く}う

[美味]{おい}しい instead of [旨]{うま}い

お[昼]{ひる} instead of [昼]{ひる}

These words are all set, they don't really follow a set pattern other than many of them start with お.

The source of your confusion probably comes from the fact that お~ is also used a prefix to honor other people's things/actions. In the case of [美化語]{びかご} you aren't honoring anything directly.

So to get back to question of 氷 is written as just 氷 because there is no politer set alternative.

  • Sad that wrong speculations get more votes than correct answers. This is the only correct answer. The fact is that some words form bikago and some don't. You can speculate about why that is (just as you can speculate about why some Latin nouns are masculine and some are feminine or neuter), but in the end you just have to remember it.
    – dainichi
    Feb 7, 2012 at 6:28
  • 1
    @danichi: if there's commonly held beliefs that are incorrect, it's better that someone says it and someone else debunks it than that it isn't mentioned at all.
    – Golden Cuy
    Feb 9, 2012 at 1:47

I've heard that rice (when cooked and not being used in a curry) has the honorific ご in ごはん because it is an essential item, i.e. something you can't live without. Perhaps the same is true of water.

Ice, on the other hand, is not an essential, and presumably wouldn't have had enough time in the language to get any honorific prefix anyway.

Edit: I probably heard about this from お-Wikipedia:

There are some words which frequently or always take these prefixes, regardless of who is speaking and to whom; these are often ordinary items which may have particular cultural significance, such as tea (o-cha) and rice (go-han). The word meshi, the Japanese equivalent of Sino-Japanese go-han, is considered rough and masculine (男性語).

  • That makes a lot of sense...food, water, we'd be in trouble without them...ice is more of a luxury. Dec 29, 2011 at 22:07
  • 1
    So... お財布 is essential? I guess you could say that... :P
    – Amadan
    Dec 30, 2011 at 6:43
  • 2
    @Amadan: Also, it contains お金!
    – Golden Cuy
    Dec 31, 2011 at 5:51
  • My answer previously referred to gairaigo tending not to have bikago. I didn't bother reading the question properly - I assumed that the dispenser used a loanword for ice, rather than a native Japanese word.
    – Golden Cuy
    Feb 2, 2012 at 10:19
  • @Amadan I've just heard that money is considered "dirty" by Japanese: amblerangel.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/… . If this is the case, then maybe the お in お金 is used because something is dirty, not because something is an essential. This may mean my comment on December 31 may be incorrect.
    – Golden Cuy
    Apr 22, 2012 at 4:35

Just conjecturing but based on:

  • tendency for longer expressions to sound more polite

  • みず is two morae

  • こおり is three morae

こおり is "one mora more polite" than みず. in おみず makes it three and so it compensates for being short and abrupt.

Also it could just be a rather simple reason being that in isolation, おみず has a higher occurrence than みず and こおり has a higher occurrence than おこおり. The higher usage one takes precedence due to argumentum ad numerum. I.e. everyone uses it because everyone uses it more often in the past. So by extension everyone continues to use the one more commonly observed thereby enforcing the dominant variation. (I lack the statistics to support this claim. This is also a conjecture)

And also, so far only 氷とお水 has been considered in a single instance. We are lacking information on:

  1. お氷とお水

  2. お氷と水

  3. 氷と水

I cannot make any definitive conclusion about 氷とお水. Especially so if any of the other patterns above are in reality more common than 氷とお水.

  • Anyone that can substantiate this theory with evidence please do add a new answer or edit this one, because I can't provide any credible/authoritative sources at all.
    – Flaw
    Feb 2, 2012 at 8:07
  • Are you guys aware that because of the ratings, new people might take this answer as a real answer ?
    – oldergod
    Feb 2, 2012 at 13:56
  • What I mean is; How can this answer be useful to anyone learning Japanese? "+1 for a supposition". Why not writing this to the recent question on お返事/ご返事 and say, へんじ has 3 morae so you don't need the honorific article. And it depends as well where へんじ is in the sentence so it might be considered part of a bigger single instance. +1 for that.
    – oldergod
    Feb 3, 2012 at 0:07
  • So why is there an おせんべい but no お木?
    – dainichi
    Feb 7, 2012 at 6:48
  • @dainichi. I have no idea. I can only offer conjectures in an attempt to describe an observation. I cannot guarantee that the pattern should hold for all circumstances.
    – Flaw
    Feb 7, 2012 at 6:56

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