Moshi moshi! What this catchy Japanese greeting really means

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Moshi moshi: what this catchy Japanese phrase really means

What does moshi moshi mean? The short answer:

Moshi moshi, or もしもし, is a common Japanese phrase that Japanese people use when picking up the phone. It’s a casual greeting used for friends and family, like a “hello”, but in fact means something entirely different! In English, it literally means something more like, “to say to say”, or “I speak I speak”. 

But a more apt translation would be something like, “I’m going to talk”.

But remember this: it’s considered casual speech, even though it comes from a polite word – so don’t use it if your boss is calling you!

Want to know more? Here’s the longer answer:

What’s that? That little taste wasn’t enough and you’re hungry for more about moshi moshi? Well, you’re in luck, because we have a lot more information to share. 

The history behind moshi moshi, according to our resident Japanese expert

“There are several theories about the origin of the expression moshi moshi (もしもし), but it seems to be related to the humble verb mousu (申す/もうす), which means “to say”, and the arrival of telecommunications to Japan in 1890. 

The story has it, the first telephone operators in Japan were men who used less polite speech to get the attention of the person on the phone. But, when the job was taken over by female operators, they started using the more humble, polite expression moushimasu (申します/もうします). Moushimasu means “to say” in Japanese polite speech and was used to communicate with callers who were in a more privileged position. Due to the poor quality of sound, it became custom to repeat the phrase – and thus, moshi moshi was born.

Nowadays, Japanese people frequently use this expression at the beginning of their phone calls, without thinking about the phrase’s origin.” 


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Origins

History aside, there’s still some debate around the phrase’s exact origins – but everyone agrees it probably came from phone operators saying moushimasu (申します)! 

But just when – and how – did moushimasu evolve into moshi moshi, specifically? 

Well, some people say a Japanese man named Shigenori Katougi created moshi moshi in the late 1880s while travelling the US. He was there to study the American phone system on behalf of the Japanese Ministry of Engineering. 

Not wanting to give a long explanation when Americans asked him how Japanese people answered the phone, given that in the US, they just said “hello”, he gave one phrase that sort of covered all the bases – moshi moshi. On further reflection, he thought it was such a good idea, he introduced it to the Ministry of Engineering when he got back home. 

Whoever said it first, the phrase must have worked well, because it obviously stuck!

Spelling and pronunciation of moshi moshi 

Moshi moshi is spelled like it sounds, and vice versa.

Moshi moshi

もしもし

も = mo

し = shi

In Japanese, there are a set number of sounds and syllables, and each hiragana or katakana character represents a sound or syllable. So, while in English, for example, the letter ‘c’ can turn into all sorts of sounds, each of these characters stands for a syllable. That means when you see mo (も), it’s just about always pronounced ‘moh’ – as in mow the lawn, or Moe the bartender. And shi (し) is ‘shee’, as in she will be loved, she will be lo-o-o-oved.

And, since there are no other characters to elongate either sound, in this case, we can guess that the syllables get equal weight.

And with all that, we get ‘moh-shee moh-shee’. Moshi moshi. Easy, right? 

Moushimasu: roots in Japanese polite speech

After reading a little about the history of moshi moshi, you might be wondering about the difference between mousu (申す), moushimasu (申します) and moshi moshi (もしもし) – and why you should say some of them to your friends and others to your higher ups at work. 

Essentially, in Japanese, there are different levels of speech: you have casual, general speech; polite speech; and respectful speech. There’s a whole system of language built around speaking in a way that’s humble (putting yourself down) or respectful (lifting the person you’re speaking to up). 

Called keigo (敬語), these more polite forms of speech include different vocabulary, verb conjugations, and ways of addressing people, and are very important in Japanese business culture. 

When not to use moshi moshi

Moshi moshi is really only used to answer the phone. The only exception you might see in face-to-face conversation is asking someone if they’re still listening, as sort of a, “Hello? Anybody in there?”

And you can’t use it for your higher ups.

See, while moushimasu (申します) is the humble verb form, moshi moshi, though originally used to be polite, has evolved to be considered casual, general speech.

That means if you’re picking up a call from your manager or boss, it’s better to say hai (はい), which means a polite “yes”. 

And if you’re answering phones on behalf of your company, you can say something polite, like odenwa arigatou gozaimasu (お電話ありがとうございます) – “thank you for calling” – or osewa ni natte orimasu (お世話になっております), which approximately means “I appreciate all you’ve done for us”, and is commonly used in Japan.

But with your friends and family? Moshi moshi away.

Supernatural uses

Lastly, you may have heard a rumour about moshi moshi keeping ill-intentioned spirits at bay. This is a popular urban legend in Japan, and makes moshi moshi all the more wonderful a phrase. 

Without getting too into Japanese folklore, essentially, foxes are considered tricksy characters who can take human form and speak human languages, and they do so to fool you into things (or worse!). And ill-intentioned ghosts? Well, they want to steal your soul.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to make sure the person on the other end of the line is the real deal – foxes, it’s believed, can’t say moshi moshi. And ghosts, who can be similarly nefarious, can’t say moshi twice. Thus, you can protect yourself from accidentally, say, marrying a fox or letting a ghoul get away with your favorite soul. All you have to do is say moshi moshi.

And that’s everything you need to know about the meaning of moshi moshi

Hopefully you’re ready to say moshi moshi at all the right moments (and none of the wrong ones). And while you’re at it…


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Emily Duncan is a Canadian writer, comedian and avid language learner currently based in New York City. Emily’s first language is English, she’s fluent in French, speaks some Irish, and is currently learning Japanese and Spanish. Emily loves dogs, iced coffee, and cooking experiments.