What the English languages owes Japan

A discussion of this topic with friends led me to look into English etymology and I unearthed the following list of words:

soy” 1670s, saio “sauce for fish, made from soybeans,” from Dutch soya, from Japanese shoyu, which is from Chinese shi-yu, from shi “fermented soy beans” + yu “oil.” Etymology reflects Dutch presence in Japan long before English merchants began to trade there.

ginkgo” 1773, from Japanese ginkyo, from Chinese yin-hing, from yin “silver” + hing “apricot” (Sino-Japanese kyo). Introduced to New World 1784 by William Hamilton in his garden near Philadelphia. One was planted 1789 at Pierce Arboretum (now part of Longwood Gardens) in Kennett Square, Pa., and by 1968 it was 105 ft. tall.

tycoon” 1857, title given by foreigners to the shogun of Japan (said to have been used by his supporters when addressing foreigners, as an attempt to convey that the shogun was more important than the emperor), from Japanese taikun “great lord or prince,” from Chinese tai “great” + kiun “lord.” Transferred meaning “important person” is attested from 1861, in reference to U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (in Hay’s diary); specific application to “businessman” is post-World War I.

hunky-dory” 1866, Amer.Eng. (popularized c.1870 by a Christy Minstrel song), perhaps a reduplication of hunkey “all right, satisfactory” (1861), from hunk “in a safe position” (1847) New York City slang, from Dutch honk “goal, home,” from M.Du. honc “place of refuge, hiding place.” A theory from 1876, however, traces it to Honcho dori, said to be a street in Yokohama, Japan, where sailors went for diversions of the sort sailors enjoy.

futon” 1876, from Japanese, said to mean “bedroll” or “place to rest.”

geisha” 1887, “Japanese girl whose profession is to sing and dance to entertain men;” hence, loosely, “prostitute,” from Japanese, lit. “person accomplished in the social arts,” from gei “art, performance” + sha “person.”

nisei“, “American born of Japanese parents,” from Japanese ni– “second” + sei “generation.” Use limited to U.S. West Coast until c.1942.

kamikaze” 1945, Japanese, lit. “divine wind,” from kami “god, providence, divine” + kaze “wind.” Originally the name given in folklore to a typhoon which saved Japan from Mongol invasion by wrecking Kublai Khan’s fleet (August 1281).

honcho” 1947, Amer.Eng. “officer in charge,” from Japanese hancho “group leader,” from han “corps, squad” + cho “head, chief.” Picked up by U.S. servicemen in Japan and Korea, 1947-1953.

shiatsu” 1967, from Japanese, lit. “finger-pressure.”

49 thoughts on “What the English languages owes Japan”

  1. The word “Hentai”popped out smoothly in the conversation with a South African man from Durban.He also knew the word “shibari”.Didn’t know what it was when I heard about it,but that was one of those rope technique you used in SM……

  2. Interesting – especially happy to learn the etymology of “tycoon.”
    Small point, but if”soy” is from Dutch, from Japanese, from Chinese, isn’t that one that English owes to Chinese?

  3. Soy sauce (醬油) in Chinese, at least in modern Mandarin, is jiangyou – fairly different from shi-yu, although I suppose it’s possible that shi-yu is closer to the reconstruction of ancient Chinese from the time period when Japan first imported the word…

  4. A few others:
    Tsunami, obvious to anyone familiar with Japanese but perhaps not to all.

    Perhaps the most awesomely obscure English word of Japanese origin is “domoic acid”, named after a particular type of algae which is commonly known in Japan as hanayanagi, but is called doumoi in Kagoshima – this probably wins the prize for most obscure English word of Japanese origin that is not immediately apparent as Japanese.

    Another important mention is “rickshaw”, which not everyone may realize comes from 人力車 / jinrikisha, or “human powered wheeled-vehicle,” via the Portuguese jinriquixá, riquixá.

    And last, Moxibustion, the Chinese medicine practice of doing something silly with burning mugwort (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moxibustion) apparently comes from the Japanese word for mugwort, mogusa. (Note that the word “mugwort” does NOT derive from mogusa. Despite the similarity this is a false cognate, and mugwort can be traced back to Old English.)

  5. This topic has been touched on from time to time on MF and other blogs. It’s interesting to think about when a foreign word is considered to have entered the language. Matt Treyvaud had a guest post on Neojaponisme in January where Mori Ogai responded to critics who thought his choice of “macaroon” rather than “amedama” in a translation made the meaning unclear. One list of loan words I saw included “Tenno” which is sets an odd standard. Certainly, we use czar, maharajah and the like in English but Tenno seems a bit obscure.

    The Mainichi still tries to claim “mottainai” is an international buzzword. It has its own English wiki entry but it’s hardly common currency.

    I like words foreign words which have different meanings to the source language. It amuses Japanese friends that a mikan is called a satsuma in the West. I’m sure we’ve all encountered examples of the reverse process with English words in Japanese.

  6. “One list of loan words I saw included “Tenno” which is sets an odd standard.”

    Totally agreed,but then,how about “Mikado”?

  7. Harry carry and numchucks. Also heard lots of people using “panko” for “breadcrumbs” lately.

  8. Panko specifically means those extra large flakey Japanese breadcrumbs, not a generic word. American cooks are all over it these days. Or it’s all over them. Err, you know what I mean.

    But seriously, for the purposes of this discussion I don’t think there’s any point whatsoever in listing words like “mikado” or “sushi” (or even “hentai”) that are well known in English AS Japanese words. I mean, yes they have “entered the language” but they are still widely thought of as foreign words. “Czar,” for example, is different, at least to the extent that it is used as a sort of Washington slang for a certain type of Presidential advisor, with no reference to the original Russian context.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with listing words like nunchuck, samurai, sashimi, etc. in English dictionaries, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about discussing them.

  9. “But seriously, for the purposes of this discussion”

    With shiatsu, kamikaze, and geisha on the original list?

    In any case, linguistically, no, they are not very interesting, but there’s a fascinating history of tri (at least) cultural exchange behind numchuck. In exactly the same way, isn’t it great that Ghost Faced Killer can be both a D&D prestige class and a member of the Wu-Tang Clan? Or that Americans can make Tom Cruise the Last Samurai and the French eulogize Michel Foucault using the same term 20 years before? Some of these words, things, and images pick up fascinatingly different meanings as they circulate. In Japan, samurai are often the stodgiest conformists, in French it tends to mean rebel or iconoclast.

    The “mistaken” ones are mostly 19th century and WWII – Korean war era stuff. That might make them fascinating oddities, but words on both sides coming out of later cultural exchange are nice too.

  10. Given its special place on this blog, I would be remiss to not ask where the English language media be without this chestnut?

    “Kabuki” 1899, from Japanese, popular theater (as opposed to shadow puppet-plays or lyrical Noh dramas), lit. “art of song and dance,” from ka “song” + bu “dance” + ki “art.” Alternative etymology (in Webster’s) is from nominal form of kabuku “to be divergent, to deviate,” from early opinion of this form of drama. Since c.1650, all parts are played by males. (from dictionary.com). More common in modern usage to mean “political metaphor for either boring deliberations or carefully calculated horse-and-pony shows” (as defined in Adamu’s first post on the subject in 2006); frequently used by lazy journalists, bloggers and talking heads.

  11. It’s kinda funny no one had yet to come up with the word ”Zen”.

    The Sika Deer,the species of deer that lives in East Asia comes from the word “Shika鹿”.when I learned this for the first time at Bronx Zoo back in 1981 seeing Formosan Sika Deer there,I burst into laugh.

  12. Another off topic.There’s a deer species that inhabits in South East Asia called Rusa Deer and “rusa”means “deer”in Malay.

  13. Sounds like “wagyu beef” or “Ishigakijima Island”. Even heard “Mt. Fuji-san” a couple of times.

  14. Quick google – “banknotes.com” identifies one Fuji image as “Mt. Fujiyama-san”. Apart from that there are, surprise, surprise, a few examples of discussion just like this one.

  15. “It’s kinda funny no one had yet to come up with the word ”Zen”.”-

    Honestly, there is no consistency to the way this gets used in English.

    I saw a dude get hit in the nuts with a tennis ball, shake it off quickly, and heard another guy opine “That was pretty f##king zen.”

  16. Come to think of it, “mama-san” has a pretty interesting history – re-exported into English and used through Korea and Vietnam.

  17. I’ve got a 1955 article by Arthur Norman called “Bamboo English – The Japanese Influence on American Speech in Japan”. I liked this bit:

    “More recently, hayaku ‘quick’ has entered the serviceman’s lingo both in its original adverbial sense and also as a savory verb, as in ‘Tell him to hayaku the hell over here!'”

    It also mentions that “suck a hachi” was used worldwide by GIs to mean “Go to hell”. “Moose”, from musume, meant girlfriend. Most of these words stayed as GI slang but some crept back overseas such as “skosh”, from sukoshi, which often appears in US dictionaries.

  18. “Come to think of it, “mama-san” has a pretty interesting history – re-exported into English and used through Korea and Vietnam.”

    That’s because GI’s could take breaks in the bases in Japan and Okinawa during those wars.Hence the Japanese term.

  19. Does the term “mama” have an ancient heritage in Japan? I know that Chinese also uses “mama’ (媽媽) to mean “mother” and I’ve read that “mama” and “papa” or “baba” are surprisingly consistent across languages, around the world, but it’s still unclear how deep that goes.

  20. 飯 can also be read “mama” or “manma” and during the Heian period, it seems that 乳母 could also be read “mama”.

  21. One theory is that babies’ first speaking attempts beyond gurgling are sounds like mama and papa or baba and parents around the world settled on those words for themselves.

  22. “It amuses Japanese friends that a mikan is called a satsuma in the West.”

    Where I grew up in the States Mikan were Mandarin Oranges, or Tangerines. Canned ones are still labeled as Mandarin Oranges, but Tangerines seem to have been replaced by Clementines.

  23. Clementines themselves are a kind of mandarin bred by a French monk called Clément.
    They are also apparently called “seedless tangerines”.
    Tangerines come from Tanger, a Moroccan city.
    And Mandarines obviously come from the word “mandarin”, which etymology is explained by the wiktionnary as such:
    From Dutch mandorijn or Portuguese mandarim, mandarij, from Malay menteri, manteri, from Hindi mantri, from Sanskrit मन्त्रिन् (mantrin, “minister, councillor”), from मन्त्र (mantra, “counsel, maxim, mantra”) + -इन् (-in, “an agent suffix”).

    I’d like to say we’re back on subject, but no Japanese root in there…

  24. Actually, mikan (Citrus unshiu) are distinct from mandarin oranges and tangerines (Citrus reticulata).

  25. Not sure what Chinese dialect has 大君 as tai kiun, but Mandarin is dàjūn. Also, the Chinese dictionary software Wenlin has dàjūn as a loan word.

  26. Gingko needs a quick edit.

    As well, we are forgetting “skosh”, which is perhaps my favorite loanword.

  27. We used it a lot in Michigan when I was growing up there. (“Would you like some more ice cream?” “Just a skosh.”) But of course we knew nothing of its origins.

  28. When I was in Cape Town this August,the local guy knew the word “bento” for takeaway lunch.

  29. Before I started learning Japanese (but still knew a few words I had picked up in movies) I thought that the san in Fuji-san was an honorific! Something like, the honorable Mr. Mount Fuji.

  30. I think that bento – as “Japanese boxed lunch” anyway – is pretty well known among, say, people who read the Lifestyle section of middlebrow newspapers in North America.

    I’ve also heard people say Skosh. Probably never said it myself, but it is said.

  31. Funny about skosh. I grew up in Michigan too and said the same thing. It never occurred to me it came from sukoshi till just now.

  32. Considering that the CNNGo piece includes a link to this post I think I would put it under “flattery.” Anyway, they’ve paid me for articles in the past and probably will again in the future, so as long as there’s proper linkage…

    Incidentally, I have an even awesomer followup to Curzon’s post on this topic that I’ll probably put up this weekend.

    I asked on Twitter/Facebook who was familiar wish “skosh” and got a surprising number of positive responses, but almost all from Chicago or west- hardly any from my East Coast people.

  33. Back when Mike Scioscia was catching for the Dodgers, announcers were unable to resist using “skosh” as a pun on his nickname when he’d catch a pitch that was right on the border of the strike zone. That’s where I first heard the word (and didn’t know it was Japanese until much later).

  34. Here’s another Chicagoan who grew up hearing (and even sometimes using) “skosh”.

  35. I had no idea skosh was so common!

    Merriam Webster lists the first known usage as 1952: I suspect that is the first recorded use in America, but it was actually brought back by veterans who had served in Japan in the post-war 40s.


    Is this a false cognate?

    “Skosh: Aircraft is out of or unable to employ active radar missiles. “

  36. Dig out that Bamboo Japanese article I mentioned along with skosh further up. It’s from 1955.

  37. Think you could email it to me? I know I could get it off JStor, but I just left campus and would like to take a look at it over the weekend to use in a followup post.

  38. I did a Google Book search for “skosh” and found this nugget of wisdom –

    “A skosh is a bit more than a tad, but not as much as a dollop.”

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