Japanese mindset, the true meaning of すむ

Hi guys, I’d like to take a moment tonight to do a little write up about 済む(すむ). In my opinion one of the most misunderstood kanji/words in Japanese. Due to this expression commonly being written as kana, quite a few people don’t know that it is actually the same すむ that’s in すみません(済みません).

Apart from すみません being a ridiculously common expression, there is also the expression 〜ずに済む, which is a grammar point that expresses ‘to get away with not doing something’. Let’s take a quick look at some examples of both meanings, and then examine what すむ’s real meaning is.

あなたのケーキを食べてすみません。
“I’m sorry for eating your cake”

あなたのお金を別の人に渡してすみません。
“I’m sorry for handing your money to the wrong person”

洗い物をせずに済む。
“To get away with not doing the dishes”

知人の紹介で入社できたので、テストは受けずに済んだ。
“Since I was able to enter the company through an aquaintances introduction, I got away with not taking a test”

Now if we try to find what 済む means in a dictionary, we will get something like (to finish, to end, to be completed). While this is half of the story, it removes the most important part of what すむ is. The true meaning for すむ in every situation is -

'to come to an end that will (never) result in another action"

すむ is the ultimate end in Japanese. It’s nuance is that whatever is finishing, is finishing because it is done, zip, finito, お・わ・り. We do not expect that any other action will be required later. すむ always has this nuance, now let’s take a look at すむ’s true meaning in the example sentences one more time!

あなたのケーキを食べてすみません。
(( I will not let it finish in a way that I ate your cake … So I apologize ))

あなたのお金を別の人に渡してすみません。
(( I will not let it finish in a way that I handed your money to the wrong person … So I apologize ))

洗い物をせずに済む。
(( To not do the dishes and expect to not have to do them in the future - someone else will do it ))

知人の紹介で入社できたので、テストは受けずに済んだ。
(( Since I got in to a company through an aquaintances introduction, It ended with that a test was not required - and I do not expect that one will be required ever in the future ))

So what you’re actually saying when you say すみません! Is ‘I have unfinished business’ Nothing more, nothing less.

Hope you found this interesting!

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Great topic, these discussions make the learning grind much more fun :slightly_smiling_face:

Personally, I hear the English definition as “to resolve (and/or feel at ease)” and I think this covers the major definitions for me, including 〜ずに済む. There is also clearing/settling debt definition where I find ‘resolve’ to be my word choice for how 済む is behaving.

That said, I hear these differently as a literal English voice given the negative to ‘unease’ ->‘sorrow’ or ‘resolved without…’ for grammar point . But that is ok, that really isn’t too important to know English to learn Japanese and again this is just my perspective.

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Good thoughts @s1212z If I were to put this super simply, I would say what it really means is ‘to return to は’ (は in the sense of 和 -harmony-), which is essentially to resolve, as something that is は is not exprected to change. That’s why you often hear ずに済む as an interrogative question
‘本当に何もせずに済むと思う?’
“Do you honestly think you can just do nothing?” (without facing consequences for not finishing/resolving it later)

By the way - I like that little online dictionary you linked in the description! Never used it before myself, but the descriptions seem really concise!

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Asher, in my Japanese language journey, I feel like I’ve only met one other person who is as passionate, skilled and giving when it comes to Japanese. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and insight.

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You are far too kind! I am really happy to hear that you enjoy reading what I write though :grin:. It really is an amazing language that just gets more and more interesting the deeper you go.

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These kind of posts are so awesome to read, especially once you’ve gotten a decent-ish grasp of the language down where you’re able to fully grasp all the different nuances. I’m sure it’s tough for beginners to appreciate it, but hopefully it serves as a motivating tool to continue their studies so they can one day focus less on the memorization aspect and instead love the complexity of the language!

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Interesting point. I hadn’t really thought about the literal meaning of ~てすみません i.e. “it won’t end with X”. But I can see now how it became a way of expressing remorse and apology.

Another common expression derived from 済む is すまない, which is often used as a colloquial version of すみません. Also, in anime/ manga one often hears the phrase ”ただですまない” i.e. “you won’t get away that easily” or something to that effect.

すまない is also used in the grammatical forms: ~ないではすまない / ~ずにはすまない (basically the opposite of ~ずにすむ i.e. not getting away with not doing X).

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This is the dream right! It is very hard to let go of ‘easy’ translations in the beginning. I think once you get to the point that you accept that the language has all it’s own nuances that may be completely different from something you would ever say as an English speaker, it makes it far easier to learn.

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ただですまない is also interesting. ただ comes from 唯、which has a similar meaning to (merely). Like “This wont merely end (without consequences)”

There is actually a similar phrase in English, ‘To get away scot-free’. I wasn’t sure how common this phrase is in other English speaking countries though (it’s quite common in Australia), so I didn’t include it in the initial write up.

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I found this post interesting and I enjoyed reading it, but I was wondering, if you want to know an accurate definition of Japanese words, at your level why don’t you just read the real definitions in a Japanese dictionary rather than trying to deduce them from looking at use cases? Or do you already do that?

I’m sure you already know the English words in Japanese to English dictionaries almost never give the ‘whole story’, as you said, they are just rough approximations.

If I choose a random Japanese dictionary, it says this:

す・む【済む】

の解説

《「[澄む]と同語源》

[動マ五(四)]

物事がすっかり終わる。「契約が―・む」「株主総会が無事に―・んだ」

借りを全部返す。「借金が―・む」

予想していた程度以下や範囲内で収まる。解決される。また、その場はそれで用が足りる。間に合う。「幸い、軽傷で―・んだ」「電話一本で―・むことだ」「罰金だけで―・んだ」

気持ちのうえで満足する。気持ちが安らぐ。「君の気が―・むまでなぐってくれ」

他人に対して言い訳が立つ。多く、打消し・反語の意を表す語を伴って、他人に謝罪する際に用いる。「ほんとに―・まなかったね」「あやまって―・む問題ではない」→[済まない]

[動マ下二]得心がゆく。納得する。

「―・めぬ事若後家五つ指を折り」〈[柳多留]

I think most people here can at least read the first definition, and yeah, it basically matches what you said; to be completely finished.

Anyway, the reason I’m saying this is because I think in some, or even many cases, it would be easy to derive false conclusions about the way a word works in every situation by trying to deduce a constant meaning based on its use cases or origin with a mind to find patterns. So, just as general advice for anyone, if you want to know what Japanese words mean to Japanese people it’s probably most reliable to just use a native dictionary.

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I do both, actually all of my anki decks only use Japanese descriptions. But I almost always try to get to the bottom of a meaning regardless of which language it is, even the Japanese usually has the same level of examples for what the word means.

Dictionaries definitely don’t give the whole story, but they are a hell of a lot better than an English description. I think quite often reading the dictionary may just leave you more confused, usually because a dictionary will give you meanings (not nuances).

Like a dictionary won’t tell you the difference between:

〜し終わる、〜済む、〜切る、〜しまう

For a learner they will all just appear to mean finish in some way.

I think the best way to learn any word is seeing it in 100s of different sentences, to really get a feeling for it.

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Yeah that’s a good point. Japanese definitions have helped me clear up misunderstandings about a lot of words but I guess they often wouldn’t be that helpful for understanding the difference btween the nuance of similar words. I think you’re right that you pretty much just need a lot of immersion. I often get asked questions about English like “what is the difference between wish and hope?”.

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I read somewhere that the “sorry” nuance of 済みません is from a shortening of 気が済みません, which is like “my mind won’t be at peace (because of what i did)”.

i found this explanation to make a lot of sense to me. i couldn’t really understand how you explained the “sorry” meaning

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This explanation is much more simple and easy to understand for me. Thanks for this post and the OP too for opening the discussion thread!

Anyways, a fellow Indonesian here? I’d recognize that type of surname and profile picture anywhere!

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