Sunday, October 21, 2012

Loanwords: Turning Japanese

Despite being on the other side of the world, Japan has managed to affect the English language. Although the Vapors song "Turning Japanese" was wrongly thought to be about masturbation, the main point was that they were turning into something they didn't want to be, with the term Japanese being an arbitrary 3-syllable word.

Here are a few of our favourite Japanese words to have made their way into English.

Bonsai - That's those little trees. We wish there was inverse bonsai where you could grow humongous daisies.

Imagine a field of these, each one as big
as your head... you'd only need to buy
one flower on special occasions
in order to please your girlfriend!

Futon - The sofa thing you sleep on if you're staying at a friend's house after a party.

Haiku - A poem with three lines, consisting of 5 syllables, then 7, then 5.

Honcho - The boss-man has his name from Japanese too!

Kabuki - A style of traditional Japanese theatre.

Kamikaze - It means "divine wind" in Japanese... the Western usage doesn't really have the same sentiment.

Karaoke - What would a night of alcohol abuse be without the compulsion to sing to a room of strangers? Do-it-yourself music was a Japanese idea and we couldn't be more grateful!

Kimono - Japanese pyjamas. It's actually a type of robe...

Manga - To the English-speaking world, Japanese comics. To the Japanese it refers to any comic. It's a bit like saying salsa in reference to the sauce. In Spanish it just means sauce.

Origami - The art of folding paper. Perhaps one of the most infuriating pastimes. If you've ever tried to fold a sheet of paper into three and failed, origami is not for you.

Some people can even fold banknotes into cranes! 
We'd probably just pay them the ten quid to make one for us.

Tsunami - The natural disaster means "harbour wave" which is pretty apt when you think about it.

Tycoon - Originally "taikun" in Japanese meaning "great prince" and "high commander", but now applied to anyone who's made a load of money.

There's definitely a lot of great food from Japan too, which is why we've got words like sushi, miso, sake, sashimi, soy, tofu, ramen and wasabi.

They also gave us most of the martial arts we know of in the western world, judo, jujutsu, karate and sumo. Kung fu is from Chinese, if you're wondering.

If you think about it, the Land of the Rising Sun has given us some pretty excellent terms... and this is hardly a comprehensive list. Sayonara!


  1. Please reconsider your definition of Kimono. Kimono are not pajamas. Kimono is the traditional dress/clothing, Today, Kimono are worn for special occasions (e.g. weddings) or ceremonies (e.g. funerals).

  2. We know. That's why we said they were actually robes. There's a humorous misconception that they are pyjamas, given their similarity to western silk pyjamas, which we were alluding to.