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Understanding Japanese Loanwords

Many loan words are in fact pseudo-borrowings: despite their links to foreign language words, the words are not used in the same way in their languages of origin.

By 4 min read 8

Imagine that you went to a foreign country and you were offered a drink. Suddenly a native of that country comes up to you and begins to gesticulate frantically at the fluid you are about to drink. ‘Tonoto,’ He keeps saying. What would you think? After all, this word could mean anything. Is he saying ‘drink?’ or ‘pay now?’ or ‘glass?’ Or maybe it’s a warning? Maybe he’s saying ‘poison.’

In fact, you would be wise to drink the offering as ‘tonoto’ is a word for sake in the Ainu parts of Japan. However if you could imagine this person’s confusion, you can easily imagine how much trouble Japanese people had when the first Europeans came over to their country. Suddenly their isolated world was full of fascinating, new languages and ideas. As the Japanese people rushed some of the more useful words into their language, it’s not surprising that they often changed their meaning.

Take for example the word カンニング (kanningu) in Japanese. This is a loan word from the word ‘cunning’ in English, however the nuance is changed. While people who cheat are clearly ‘cunning’, the Japanese got the wrong impression of the word when importing it and use カンニング to mean the act of cheating rather than the attitude of the cheater.

A similar confusion explains the incorporation of the word サボる (saboru) into Japanese. This word emerged during the 1920s of Japan and owes its origin to the French word saboteur/ sabotage. The word came to be associated with the student movements in Japan and its meaning became ‘to cut class’ as opposed to its original meaning of some who intentionally ‘sabotages’ something.

This pattern of putting a る (sometimes written as ル) on the end of loan words to make a Japanese word can be seen in a lot of Japanese verbs. A computer bug plus る made the Japanese word バグる (baguru) which is used whenever your software starts playing up. Similar origins can be seen from the words made from common words like memo メモる (memoru – to take notes), making a mistake (ミスる – misuru), being in harmony (ハモる- hamoru), making trouble (トラブる- toraburu), and panicking (パニクる panikuru).

Similarly, クーラー (kūrā) for air conditioner is another example of the function of the machine becoming its description (although the word エアコン is used too). Another example is サイン (sain – a signature) which, unlike English, is often used as a noun instead of a verb. This is likely because people were told to ‘sign here’ and it was difficult to distinguish the noun from the verb in this sentence.

Intriguingly some of these loanwords evolved from choosing the wrong word to abbreviate. Whereas the concentric plug is shortened to ‘plug’ in most languages, the Japanese instead abbreviated the first word to make コンセント (konsento). A similar origin likely explains why all card games are referred to as a game of trumps (トランプゲーム toranpu gēmu) instead of being used for one specific game.

Other problems are caused when the loanword has a different meaning in English. Whereas ソーラーシステム (sōrā shisutemu) must have seemed like an ideal way to describe a system that converts solar energy into usable energy for a house, it is confusing for Westerners who usually think of a ‘solar system’ as being something in space. Similarly, the generation that coined コック (kokku) as a way to Japanize the English word ‘cook’ must have thought that they’d chosen the right word. The only problem is that コック brings to mind male chickens (or worse!) when said in English.

My favorite words are the ones that made their way from other languages and then got completely changed as soon as they reached Japan. While I am sure there are satisfactory explanations for the origin of words like バージンロード (bājinrōdo. Literally ‘virgin road’, but actually means the wedding aisle itself) and セル モーター (seru mōtā – starter motor), I think that finding out their origins would ruin part of the charm of these mashups.

Perhaps that is the best attitude to have towards these loanwords is the same one visitors should have to Japanese culture in general: simply enjoy the unique way that something so familiar can be changed to something unique and specifically Japanese and not worry too much about the particulars.

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  • Clafoutea says:

    We do the same for the verbs in french. We put -er at the end of an english word and voilà ! New verb.

    • Matthew Coslett says:

      Yeah, that rule helped me out a lot when I took my French exams at high school. If in doubt, add -er on the end of the English word and use a French accent 😀

  • Sik says:

    No mention of the word テンション, which instead of “tension” actually means “excitement”? (I bet this one is bound up to confuse nearly everybody who wasn’t aware of it beforehand)

  • Thijs Seghers says:

    Never knew about the adding of the -る after loanwords to make it a verb. Interesting!
    About コック (kokku); I think it’s not derived from the English word “cook”, but possibly from the Dutch word “kok”.

  • Frédéric Seraphine says:

    I think that Saboru looks more like the french verb “Saborder”, which is a marine word. It means “Sink your own ship bebore your ennemy gets it”

  • George Hawkins says:

    コック is not from English though. It is a very old loan word from the Dutch word for cook.

    • Matthew Coslett says:

      Haha! I fell into the very trap that I complained about in the article of assuming that English is the default language for loan words! Thanks for the correction, George



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