It's probably safe to say that not a day goes by that we don't read about global warming, climate change or greenhouse gases in a newspaper.

I recently received a letter from a reader who questioned the appropriateness of referring to greenhouse gases as "onshitsu koka gasu" in Japanese. She pointed out that the word "koka," which means "effect," is used only when the outcome is good or desirable, never when it's unwelcome.

She was quite right. There is no such expression as "aku koka" (bad effect) in Japanese. The correct expression is "aku eikyo" (bad influence).

Moreover, we associate "onshitsu" (greenhouse) with something nice and comfortably warm.

Now that I think about it, perhaps a more appropriate Japanese translation of greenhouse gases would be something like "kiko hendo genkyo gasu" (gases that are the root cause of climate change).

There are expressions we use as a matter of course but make us stop and shake our heads when we look at them in the written form.

Sachiko Kishimoto, a professional translator, brings up examples of such expressions in her collection of essays titled "Ne ni Motsu Taipu" (I'm the type who holds a grudge).

"Akanbo" is colloquial Japanese for babies, and Kishimoto discusses the images this word evokes from the kanji characters in which it is written.

"I imagine a life form of some kind, although I can't be sure exactly what," she says. "Its entire body is bright red (aka) and glistening, with steam rising from its head that's completely bald (bozu) like that of a 'nyudo' Buddhist monk."

She adds that this creature is probably a small nocturnal carnivore that hisses and devours its prey alive.

Continuing to let her imagination run wild, she says "sashimi" makes her think of someone who has been stabbed all over the body and bloodied.

And in her mind, "udeppushi," which is written with the kanji characters for "arm" and "joint" and translates as "brawn," is a disease that causes growths of what resemble tree knotholes on one's arms.

I believe Kishimoto's unique observations are typical of translators who have developed an incisive sense of what every word or expression stands for, and I must say she gave me a good laugh.

I remember feeling uncomfortable when the expression "sabetsuka" (differentiation) first came into use in business parlance, because "sabetsu" denotes "discrimination."

But I have become used to it over time, and that's probably because of the power of habit.

Still, it's not a bad idea to look at common words and expressions in their written form once in a while, and let our imagination run free.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 14

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.