I'm not talking about homonyms that have very different meanings to be able to make it abundantly clear from context alone like hana (nose, flower) or kami (hair, god, paper), but like tokei(watch, clock) and koshi (back and waist).

Do people just say 手の時計 for watch or 普通の時計 for a standard clock? What about koshi? Usually people will use it in body-related topics where context alone seems rather unhelpful because both are plausible. What then?

  • I'm not too sure what you mean by "both are plausible." Do you have an example of where 腰 would be confusing? – Leebo Sep 11 '19 at 5:15
  • Let's say a doctor had to measure your back and he said koshi. Now you would roughly know what region he is looking at but I hazard a guess that if surveyed, it would be a 50-50 chance that people understood him exactly and not just waited for the doctor to do his thing and find out then. – shoryuu Sep 11 '19 at 6:16
  • Also I watched Kamen Rider. They mentioned koshi, and the guy knew immediately that it was the waist. Now it helps that most of the time Kamen Riders uses belts. But nowadays the belt strap itself only magically comes out when placed at the waist, so without it, it looks like just any other device that could also be placed on the BACK perhaps. This is ignoring fictional writing where characters know magically what it means and thinking it from a viewer's perspective or the character's perspective from a real-life view where they wouldn't magically know it. – shoryuu Sep 11 '19 at 6:16
  • If you go to the Wikipedia article for "waist" and then click over to Japanese you'll be taken to the article for 腰. It's the same region in both languages. It's never going to be your whole back in Japanese. Your lower back is within the range that the word waist describes. – Leebo Sep 11 '19 at 6:20
  • And just to clarify, this part about 腰 is not an attempt to answer the question, but to determine if it fits the category described by the question. It's not clear to me that it does. – Leebo Sep 11 '19 at 7:01

They are not "vague" from the Japanese standpoint. Seen from the opposite side, I must say English is equally confusing. How do you distinguish 胃 and 腹 when they are both "stomach" in English? How do you distinguish 恋 and 愛 when both are "love" in English? How about 兄/弟 ("brother"), 胡椒/唐辛子 ("pepper"), ごはん/米/稲 ("rice"), 水/湯 ("water"), 絵/写真 ("picture"), 便所/風呂 ("bathroom"), and so on?

The Japanese language makes no distinction between "watch" and "clock" at a single-word level. Just as English speakers do not think "water" has two meanings, Japanese speakers do not think 時計 has two meanings. 普通の時計 is either "ordinary clock" or "ordinary watch". There are compounds like 腕時計 ("watch"), 置時計 ("table clock") and 壁掛け時計 ("wall clock") if you really need to distinguish the types of 時計, but you should not use them without a reason.

As for 腰, it refers to the lower back and the pelvic part of the body (see the picture here), so it's an equivalent of neither "waist" nor "back". We also have words like 背中, ウエスト and お尻. See also: How can I differentiate between feet and legs?

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    'How do you distinguish 胃 and お腹 when they are both "stomach" in English?' Well, we have 'stomach', 'belly', and 'tummy', but none of them map precisely to Japanese お腹 or 腹. I'd probably render both tummy and stomach as お腹 despite the difference in formality between the two words, and belly to 腹, if I absolutely had to. – Angelos Sep 11 '19 at 5:56
  • Thank u. So basically I am right aren't I? While not using the rudimentary made-up words of 普通の時計 for example, but I am right they do have to resort to more specific words like 腕時計 because it really is too vague that they have to use more kanji to specify it. Otherwise they have to clarify it in speech with even more descriptive words in a sentence if specific words like 腕時計 doesn't exist. – shoryuu Sep 11 '19 at 6:20
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    @shoryuu You don't "have to". Just using 時計 is enough most of the time. Each time you hear "I have a brother", do you think "Oh this person is speaking too vaguely! Use more words to specify it!"? – naruto Sep 11 '19 at 7:02

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