Friday, June 7, 2013

Fifty Shades of Rain

In Japan there are over fifty words to describe rain.  Yesterday, as I sat at my desk looking outside and watching the rain fall, I remembered rainy season in Japan, and the way the rain would fall straight down to the ground in endless, relentless, heavy streams. 

There is a word for that.  Ooame.   That means “heavy or big rain.”  But it wouldn’t have been fuu because that is the kind of rain that combines with wind and blows around.  Yesterday there was no wind at all, and the curtains of rain reminded me so much of the rainy season that I could almost feel the way it used to splash around my feet as I ran for the train, or the way it sounded on the big umbrella that was my constant companion for the month of June every year I lived in Japan.
It rains a great deal in Japan, which could explain the need for so many words.  Japanese people are also excessively fond of talking about the weather, and there is a lot to talk about.  The heat (atsui!), the humidity (mushiatsui!), and the cold (samui!), and those exclamation points are absolutely necessary.  When it was hot in Japan, it was scorching.  When it was humid in Japan, it was like breathing in liquid air.  And when it was cold, due to the lack of central heating in the first apartment I lived in, it was pretty darned frigid. 

But that isn’t all there is to it.  The Japanese are masters of the onomatopoeia.  When I say “It is raining fuu fuu,” I can almost hear the wind blowing and the rain crashing against my window.  For a language that can be amazingly vague (Subjects and direct objects?  Please. Who needs ‘em?), it is also astoundingly descriptive.  They bring the term le mot juste to a completely different level.  Finding that perfect word isn’t just an endeavor to them; it is an art form.
We should carry this into our own writing.  Why use tired when you can use exhausted, broken-down, narcoleptic, done for, spent, drained, tuckered out, drooping, dead on one’s feet, played out, drowsy, or pooped?  Tired might work, but why settle?  Add layers and subtle beauty to your writing by searching for the word that isn’t just good.  Look for the word that is stupendous, marvelous, and superb.

And the next time it is raining, look outside and find a way to describe it to yourself.  Is it a chilly rain, or a driving rain, or merely a drizzle?  We might not have fifty words for rain in English, but there are infinite possibilities for how you can describe it.


  1. Ah, this brings back memories! I so vividly remember Tokyo rain. And the summer humidity. Now, living in London, I really wished we had more words for rain in English to at least spice it up a bit. Come to think of it, would be nice if we also had a phrase for "My God! It's raining AGAIN!"

  2. I love this post! I took Japanese for years, but I only knew "ame." Guess it's something you have to live there to learn. Wonderful analogy to writing.

  3. Alexis Bledel as Ana
    With Ian Somerholder as Christian
    THat is the best fit!!
    Fifty Shades Of Grey Movie