The Roots: Obscure Origins of Unusual Katakana

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On March 21, 2018
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Katakana Photo by Becca Takano

As learners explore the weird and wonderful world of katakana words, it can easily lead to a false sense of confidence. After encountering yet another term that is simply English or a familiar European language it is easy to assume that we don’t even need to bother learning them. However, recently, increasingly stranger kana have started to appear that are a new and unique category. These katakana are those taken from other languages where the original meaning has been changed to something uniquely Japanese.

One of the most common examples is the verb サボる (not coming to class). Like most learners that encounter this weird mixture of カタカナ and ひらがな, I was amazed to learn that this word was connected to the French word “sabotage.”

When the word サボる first entered the Japanese language, it was connected with the power plays during the labor disputes of the Taisho era and as a result had something like its original meaning. It took students starting to use similar tactics to these labor disputes by walking out of class and organizing protests for the verb to take on its current meaning: to play hooky from school.

One of my favorite word origins has always been the シャープペンシル (a mechanical pencil). In this case, the origin was the original pencil, which, in order to make its use as easy-to-understand as possible, was called the Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil. Obviously, this mouthful was too much for most Japanese people and as a result the pencil was abbreviated to シャープペンシル.

While the origins of サボる and シャープペンシル are well-documented, at other times the origin can be so obscure that researching it can feel like digging through fan theories of JRR Tolkien’s or George RR Martin’s novels. An example of this a few years ago was マンネリカップル (a couple stuck in a rut).

… sometimes words simply come from other languages and the origin is hidden.

The origin is very obscure as the most common story for its origin is that マンネリ is connected to the Italian word “manierismo.” This unusual word is familiar to art historians as it describes a period of art that (somewhat unfairly) is linked to repetition of what came before without the playfulness of previous periods… at least in the Japanese psyche. As a result マンネリ came to mean repetitious and eventually came to mean a rut.

Another tricky one is デマ (originally from the German word, “demagogie”). In both German and English, this word is usually reserved for leaders who seek support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. In Japan, however, it is often used for any source of misinformation — as in the recent buzzword デマツィート (a tweet designed to convey untruths) and デマ情報じょうほう (misinformation).

Similarly, a word that is popular on the internet recently is ソフトな印象いんしょう (soft impression). Although most English speakers would generally consider this phrase to mean someone who is weak, in Japanese it means something similar to “easy to approach.” It can also have a meaning similar to “warm” or “easy” as they apply to people, for example in the sentence: へアカラーあか みのブラウンやソフトな印象 (“hair color such as brown can give a ‘soft impression’”).

Of course, sometimes words simply come from other languages and the origin is hidden. I wasted a lot of time when researching this article looking up the origin of the word ノルマ (a quota) until someone pointed out that it is a bastardization of the Russian word “норма” (when pronounced in Russian, this sounds something like the English woman’s name “Norma”). A similar story applies to other words like a カルテ (one’s medical record, taken from the German word for a chart: “karte”) and コンクール (a concert, from the French word “concours”).

Learners are slowly getting used to the idea that during translation, the meaning of English and European words can be altered by the Japanese psyche. For some of these, it’s easiest just to think of them as uniquely Japanese words that coincidentally sound like English words and learn them that way. For others, however, digging through the books and finding out where the ideas came from and how they evolved can help to understand their meanings.

What are some of your favorite obscure loan words? Let us know in the comments!

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