Updated July 10, 2024

Incredible or Terrible?: “Sugoi” Meaning in English and Use Cases, Demystified

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Japan Dev Team

Japan Dev contributor

If you’ve ever been to Japan or consumed any Japanese media, you’ve probably heard the word "Sugoi (すごい)" used in some way, shape, or form. 

This ubiquitous word is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and daily life, and can mean different things in different situations. Surprising as it may be, the word can mean “Amazing!” Or “Terrible!”, so it can have a positive or negative connotation depending on the context.

As a foreigner living here, understanding its diverse applications can help you navigate Japanese social interactions with confidence and clarity.

Here, I’ll explain all the different meanings of the word and tell you all the variations you may hear when you’re out and about. I’ll also provide some alternative words to use when in doubt so you can avoid awkward situations.

Let’s jump right in.

Sugoi Meaning in Japanese: The Word Origin

If we get into linguistics, understanding the true origin of the word “Sugoi” can be a whole discussion on its own. It’s a word that originates from the kanji character 凄 (pronounced sei or sai alone), and can be pronounced differently when attached to different words.

In this case, when the -i is added at the end of the word, the kanji 凄 is pronounced as “Sugo”, forming the word Sugoi or 凄い (すごい). 

That said, you don’t need to understand the word's origin to learn how it’s used, so let’s see how Sugoi is most commonly used in daily Japanese.

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What Does Sugoi Mean Today?

Today, the most common use of the word Sugoi by itself is an exclamation of admiration, as in “Amazing!”, “Incredible!”, or “Awesome!”. While Sugoi is essentially an adjective, it can also be turned into an adverb, depending on how it’s used.

When used positively to admire something or point out that something is good, “Sugoi” is often uttered without much thought, sort of like a reflex rather than a thought-out response.

So, the easiest way to start using Sugoi in conversations is by learning how to use the word as a form of admiration. For this, you only need to understand the simple nuance between what can and can’t be called “Sugoi!”.

Sugoi can be used for admiring someone’s strength, accomplishments, or extraordinary abilities. So, using “Sugoi!” to celebrate a friend who scored a high-paying job at a FAANG company, for instance, would be totally appropriate. 

Or, if someone gives you good news about something that has transpired in their lives, you can also say “Sugoi!” to express your amazement or excitement, similar to saying “Wow!” in English. 

While you’re better off attending a Japanese language school for a thorough explanation, now that we have a rough definition, let’s briefly look at the word from a grammar standpoint.

Sugoi: An Adjective and An Adverb 

Other than its congratulatory purpose when used alone, Sugoi can also be a modifier when used alongside nouns, serving as an adjective. 

For instance, when a barista hands you a beautifully crafted latte at an artisanal coffee shop, you can admire it by saying “Wow, this latte is amazing!” or このラテ、すごいですね~! (Kono rate sugoi desune!).

The word can also be used in conjunction with adjectives. It’s good to keep in mind that sometimes Sugoi as an adverb is actually “Sugoku” after it’s conjugated, even though you’ll often hear it as Sugoi when used alone or as an adjective. 

For example, as I explained in my post on Kawaii, you’ll often hear things described as “Kawaii!” which means cute. So, when you want to put extra emphasis on how cute something/someone is, you go 彼女はすごい可愛いですよね!(Kanojo wa sugoi kawaii desu yo ne!), which just means, “She’s incredibly pretty.”

While this is all clear so far, I mentioned that the word Sugoi is also used to describe things that are terrible, bad, or even dreadful. Let’s look into it.

The Negative/Sarcastic Meaning of Sugoi in Japanese: Terrible, Awful

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One of the biggest reasons why the word “Sugoi” can be confusing to foreigners is due to its negative meaning. 

While the word has many uses when it comes to admiring things that are good, positive, or reassuring, it can also mean that there’s a problem. So, how can you tell the difference?

When used in a negative context, Sugoi means trouble. So, it's more of a disaster rather than a slight inconvenience and emphasizes how incredibly bad something is.

For instance, everyone hates sitting in traffic, but if you happen to get stuck in worse-than-usual traffic, you can use Sugoi to emphasize the severity of the situation. For example, すごい渋滞だった! (sugoi jūtai datta!) means, “The traffic was incredibly bad!”.

So, you really have to look out for the context to decide whether “Sugoi” is used to describe a great thing or a dreadful thing. To further prove how confusing things can get, here’s another example where it conveys sarcasm.

The phrase あれはすごい言い方だと思います (Are wa sugoi iikata dato omoimasu) can be translated as “That’s a great way to put it!”, but it can also be interpreted as “That’s an awful way to put it!”.

So, sometimes, you need to watch out for the sarcasm and have a good grasp of the entire conversation to understand whether Sugoi is used to emphasize a negative or a positive thing, which admittedly adds an extra layer of complexity. 

Various Spellings and Pronunciations of Sugoi

As I mentioned before, in certain cases, the word sugoi can change forms. I already mentioned that it turns into “Sugoku” when used as an adverb to put extra emphasis on the incredibility of something.

However, in writing, things can get complex. For example, while you’ll mostly see the word written in hiragana, which looks something like すごい, the kanji writing, while less common, is 凄い.

In a manga that uses Katakana writing, however, you may also see the word written as スゴイ. To learn more about the different sets of characters used in Japanese, I recommend reading my post “How hard is it to learn Japanese?”.

Additionally, in many anime, especially in Shounen anime series like One Piece, you’ll often hear young protagonists, such as Monkey D. Luffy, exclaim, “Suge!”. This is a way of speech that tends to have a more masculine nuance and is a common slang way to pronounce the word.

Lastly, while the informal version “Sugoi” should suffice when talking to peers or people who are close to you, if you’re speaking to someone older or at a higher rank at work, don’t forget to use the formal version by saying すごいです (Sugoi desu) instead, or use one of the alternatives I list below.

Sugoi As a Praise, and Other Useful Japanese Praise Words

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As I said, when used positively, Sugoi conveys the feeling of admiration or praise, especially regarding someone’s extraordinary physical strength, abilities, or work. 

However, this is a general praise word, and while it’s a common phrase, here are a couple of alternatives if you want to switch things up or try more appropriate praise words for specific scenarios.

素晴らしい (Subarashi) 

I previously mentioned that Sugoi is an informal expression, and unless you’re speaking to people who are close to you or are your peers, you should say “Sugoi desu” instead. However, even this may sound impolite or insufficient in more serious settings.

So, instead of Sugoi, you can use Subarashi or 素晴らしい (すばらしい), which conveys the same meaning of “wonderful” but with more intent. Unlike “Sugoi!” or “Suge!” which is an involuntary exclamation, Subarashi is a much more thoughtful expression. 

The word means that you felt something very deeply or were moved, implying once again that you’re “impressed” by someone or something. However, the main difference is that it serves a more explanatory purpose as to why you admire something. 

Here’s an example: While at an exhibit, if you deeply admire a painting, you can say この絵を描いた人は才能があります。素晴らしい。 (Kono e kaita hito wa sainou ga arimasu. Subarashi.), which means “The person who drew this painting is a genius. (It’s) Impressive.”

素敵(suteki)

Similar to Sugoi, another multi-purpose word you can use to admire or praise someone or something is by saying 素敵 (suteki). 

On its own, the word is commonly used to compliment fashionable people. 

Other than this, Suteki also conveys a feeling of quiet comfort or happiness. In a way, it’s a more tender expression of admiration as opposed to the more excitement-filled “Sugoi!”. This is why the expression is often associated with femininity, although men do also use this word.

For a more gender-free expression, you may opt to use the word いいね (ii ne) instead, which literally means “good” or “that’s nice!”, but this is a milder expression compared to “Suteki.”

So, “ii ne” means that you agree with someone and are praising them for it, but it isn’t a strong expression, just like you’d say “right!” or “yeah!” when agreeing with someone’s behavior or words. If you want to make this formal, you can say いいですね (ii desu ne) instead. 

Real-Life Examples: Other Ways To Use Sugoi in Conversation

Being a word as ubiquitous as this, you’ll hear “Sugoi” used in many other ways in daily Japanese conversations, and it can be hard to describe each of its uses clearly. 

So, here are some other common real-life scenarios where you may hear Sugoi used in other specific ways.

  • To express relief: You can say 本当? ああ、そうなの、すごく安心した。 (Hontou? Aa, sou nano, sugoku anshin shita!), which means “Oh really? I’m relieved then!”

  • To express fright or fear: You can say something like “すごく高そうなんだよね!” (Sugoku takasou nanda yone!), it just means, “That looks awfully high, doesn’t it?”

  • To exclaim in admiration: Saying “ああ、すごいきれいじゃん!” (Aa, Sugoi kirei jan!) when you see something visually appealing can mean, “Oh, how beautiful is that!”

  • To express worry about something bad happening in the future: Saying このままじゃ、すごくまずいよね (Konomamaja sugoku mazui yone) can emphasize that things aren’t looking good, meaning “If we don’t do something, it’s going to be bad.”

Closing Thoughts: Responding to “Sugoi” and Accepting Praise

As you've gained insight into the various contexts of "Sugoi," understanding how to respond to this versatile word is equally important, so let’s take a look at some scenarios.

For instance, if someone praises you for your work and you want to receive it in a polite way, you can respond by gently denying the praise, いいえ、いいえ (iie, iie), which means “No, no”.

That said, another, humble way to go about this is by responding with a question, which is そうかな? (Sou-kana?), meaning something like, “Oh, is that so?!”.

Finally, if you want to respond with a simple thank you, that’s fine too! Simply say “ありがとうございます (arigatou gozaimasu)” or follow my guide on how to say “Thank you” in Japanese.

While this is all I have for Sugoi, if you want to learn another versatile Japanese word, be sure to check out my Daijobu post. If you want to master Japanese, my posts on the best Japanese language schools and best Japanese learning tools can be great places to start!

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Japan Dev Team

This post was written by our Japan Dev editorial team.