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Unusual Katakana and Their Origins

Did you know that ノルマ actually means "quota" and not the name of your mate's grandma?

By 3 min read

As learners explore the weird and wonderful world of katakana words, it can easily lead to a false sense of confidence. After struggling to awkwardly pronounce yet another menu item that is simply English (or a familiar European language), you might feel like you don’t even need to bother studying them.

But with technology and social media, increasingly stranger kana have started to appear that form a new and unique category. These are the kind of katakana 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 katakana and hiragana, I was surprised 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 liberalizing Taisho era (1912-26) and as a result, had something like its original meaning back then.

It wasn’t until students started to use similar tactics to these labor disputes (by walking out of class and organizing protests) for the verb to begin to take on its current meaning: to play hooky from school.

One of my favorite word origins has always been 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 (fancy!). Obviously, this mouthful was too much for most Japanese people and so 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, elsewhere kana sources can be so obscure that researching it can feel like digging through Game of Thrones fan theories. An example of this is マンネリカップル (a couple stuck in a rut).

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 (a bit unfairly) is linked to repetition of what came before without the playfulness of previous periods… at least according to the Japanese interpretation. Therefore マンネリ came to mean repetitious and eventually came to mean a rut. Harsh.

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 (the POTUS, anyone?).

In Japan, though, it’s often used for any source of misinformation—as in the 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 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: ブラウンのようなヘアカラーはソフトな印象いんしょうあたえる (“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 competition, from the French word “concours”).

So next time you’re trying to process some katakana out loud, just know that it could come from a language you’re not familiar with! The #struggle is リアル.

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