Wasabi (stress on the first syllable: WAH-sah-bee) is not horseradish. For an explanation of why it’s not even close, as well as of why people think it is (not to mention a description of the word’s bizarre relationship to the characters used to write it in Japanese), see Bill Poser’s post at Language Log.


  1. Would it not be more accurate, strictly speaking, to say “accent on the first syllable”, as accent in Japanese is essentially a matter of pitch rather than stress?
    I don’t think “not even close” is quite fair. One English name for wasabi japonica is “Japanese horseradish”, and my Japanese-English dictionary translates “horseradish” as “wasábidaìkon, seíyōwasàbi“[1] . So it seems a similarity between the plants is recognized from both sides.
    [1] In case the accented characters don’t come through, they should be a-acute, i-grave, i-acute, o-macron, a-grave. Accute accents indicate a rise in pitch, grave a fall in pitch, and macron of course indicates a long vowel. This is my only Japanese dictionary to show the accents, and it’s English-Japanese only, so I can’t check on wasabi itself.

  2. I say “stress” because I’m talking about the English word, which I too often hear said “wa-SAH-bee.” Of course, if that becomes universal, it will simply be the English pronunciation, but while it’s still in flux I’m trying to do my bit for the more Japanesish form. As for “not even close,” the reference is to botany, not popular perception (which of course equates the two).

  3. It may be that the active ingredient is the same. I don’t know what it is, but it’s biochemically distinctive enough that there’s as “horseradish reagent” used in medical labs (along with snake venom and spider venom.)

  4. I had plenty of the real stuff when I was in Japan, and I think it is completely accurate to describe it as “Japanese horseradish” – it goes straight to your nose in a very similar way – though I agree the Jeopardy question equating the two condiments was ridiculous. Yes, the same chemical compounds do sometimes occur in different plants, usually signalled by similar tastes, and often possessing similar medical virtues. It is legitimate for popular nomenclature to reflect this, as in white salsify and black salsify. That’s why serious plant people use Latin almost exclusively. (And hats off to botanists for not trying to enforce uniformity and consistency on English usage, like the American Ornithological Union does for the common names of birds!)

  5. Well, if you’re talking only about the English word, I think that battle’s lost. The Concise OED only gives /w@”sA:bi/ – that’s RP, of course, but I doubt there’s any significant population of native anglophones stressing it on the first syllable.
    Botanically, they’re both members of the Brassicaceae, although admittedly so are any number of other vegetables that no-one is likely to confuse with either. While searching unsuccessfully for more precise information on how the two are related, I found detailed descriptions of the plant and its use here and here. I had no idea sharkskin was used to grate it.
    My point above, though, was not the popular equation of the two (against which Poser was quite rightly arguing), but that they are perceived as markedly similar by those who are aware of the difference, such that the common name of one plant is derived from the other in both languages. This seems relevant to me in determining their “closeness”, although I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste.

  6. Oh, absolutely. It’s like pairs of animals that appear very similar to the layman but in fact have completely different evolutionary histories.
    As for pronunciation, I hear WA-sabi a lot around New York, presumably from people who frequent sushi places and hear the Japanese saying it that way. You’re probably right about the general population, though. Too bad.

  7. The problem with saying WAH-sah-bee is that, while I’m sure it sound right in the middle of a Japanese sentence, it sounds foolish in the middle of a standard American one. Surprisingly, although, it doesn’t sound so out of place in some of our more colorful dialects.
    Let me try to simulate this (you’ll have to read along out loud, or it won’t work):
    * Deep Southern
    Hun, wou’jeu be sa kine as ta pass me suma’that WAH-sah-bee?
    * Brooklyn:
    Yo, Gino, pass ovah da fuckin’ WAH-sah-bee
    Did it work?

  8. I guess you’re right. My thinking was that it’s an irremediably foreign-sounding word anyway, so why not have the correct accent—but the penultimate stress does fit better in an English context.

  9. You heard it here first. You can’t really afford to ignore Language Hat (TM)!:
    The active ingredient in horseradish is indeed the same one found in wasabi and also mustard. It protects against cancer.
    “Glucosinolates are invariably accompanied in plant cells by the enzyme myrosinase (a ß-thioglucosidase), which is normally physically segregated from its glucosinolate substrates but is released and hydrolyzes glucosinolates to isothiocyanates and other products when plants are injured by predators or when food is prepared or chewed (Fig. 1) . This reaction is responsible for the development of the sharp taste of horseradish, mustard and wasabi.”
    “Glucosinolates and their isothiocyanate hydrolysis products are well-known protectors against carcinogenesis, as will be discussed below”
    “London and colleagues (26 ) found a significant association between the presence of dithiocarbamates (which are glucosinolate and isothiocyanate metabolites) in the urine of a large cohort of men in Shanghai and their subsequent risk of developing lung cancer. Contrary to the title of this paper, the analytes measured in the urine are dithiocarbamate metabolites because the levels of isothiocyanates in urine are negligible (28 , 29 , 42 ). Those who excreted dithiocarbamates, an index of glucosinolate and isothiocyanate consumption, had a lower risk. This protective effect became more prominent in individuals with homozygous deletions in certain glutathione transferases (M1 and T1). Because these enzymes are involved in the conversion of isothiocyanates to dithiocarbamates and presumably facilitate the excretion of isothiocyanates, the findings suggest that the activities of these enzymes lower effective tissue levels of isothiocyanates. These findings provide additional support for the pivotal role of the glucosinolates and isothiocyanates derived from crucifers in chemoprotection against cancer.”

  10. Thanks — I will consume my horseradish and mustard with the smug knowledge that even as I am stimulating my taste buds, I am protecting myself against carcinogenesis! (I am not a wasabi-eater, having no truck with sushi.)

  11. As a matter of fact, I’m not aware of any food considered ‘spicy’ (there being several fairly unrelated varieties of spiciness) that is NOT touted for its health benefits.

  12. Also, you don’t have to worry about a lot of isothiocyanates in your urine if you eat horseradish, not matter what William Bennett tells you.

  13. John Thacker says

    Is not the case of wasabi (山葵) and horseradish similar to that of the sweet potato (ipomoea batatas) and the yam (dioscorea genus, including dioscorea batatas) “Yam” is frequently used, especially in the South, to refer to sweet potatoes as well, for a variety of reasons. (See here).

  14. John, Do I know you?
    Have you ever been to St Louis?
    If yes, hit me up on ICQ: 136547585.
    If not – sorry you just remind me of someone.

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