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East Meets West: Six English Words That Are Actually Japanese

Taco. Bric-a-brac. Modus Operandi. Hoi Polloi. Kitschy. Prima donna.

Quick! What do these terms have in common?

I’ll give you a hint. They come from Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, German, and Italian, respectively.

Here’s another hint: Did you know that approximately 80% of the English language consists of words from other languages?

All of the words in the first line of this article are loan words, and they are just a small example of why English, by most measures, has the largest vocabulary compared to other languages.

Image of red Japanese shrine building

What are Loan Words?

Loan words are words or terms that are adopted by one language from another without translation. While the pronunciation may change slightly, the word and meaning basically stay the same.

While the origins of loan words may be obvious and well-known, such as vodka or guru, there are some, though, that are surprising, even for a crusty, old wordsmith like me. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of the more interesting English loan words from Japanese and their stories.

1. Tycoon

Originally a term for the shogun or military leader in Japan, tycoon consists of two kanji (logographic characters): 大君 (tai: GREAT + kun: LORD). The word traveled to the West with Commodore Perry after his visit to Japan in the mid-19th century and eventually came to mean someone who had amassed great wealth or resources in an industry, such as timber, mining, railroads, etc. Some synonyms are magnate, czar, and mogul. (Guess what? Those are loan words, too, from Latin, Russian, and Persian).

Ex. “His early success led to him becoming a real estate tycoon in the area.”

2. Honcho

In Japanese, this word consists of the two kanji 班長 (han: SQUAD + chou: LEADER) and unsurprisingly means “squad leader.” Like many Japanese loan words, this one seems to have come from World War II, either from US POWs’ interaction with their captors or from US soldiers stationed in Japan during the post-war occupation. It gained popularity with US soldiers in the Korean war who used it to refer to the “officer in charge,” but now more generally means the person in charge or the “boss,” a loan word from Dutch.

Ex. “As head honcho of the organization, she was in charge of all major decisions.”

3. Sudoku

This popular number placement puzzle has an even more interesting history than you might think. While the original idea was invented in France in the 19th century, the modern version we know became popular in Japan in 1984. First published under the name 数字は独身に限る (sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru), meaning “the digits must be single,” it was later shortened to 数独 (: NUMBER + doku: SINGLE). In 2004, it was “rediscovered” by the West and exploded in popularity as a competitor to crosswords puzzles in newspapers, even having its own game shows for a time.

Sudoku for kids with moons, dewdrops, halfmoons, and clouds with face in the square.
Sudoku is now not limited to numbers. There are even pictorial versions for kids.

4. Rickshaw

Similar to sudoku, the first human pulled carts that we now know as rickshaws were first invented in France in the 17th century and were called vinaigrettes because of a similarity to the carts used by vinegar sellers. The rickshaw was later independently invented in Japan in the 19th century and was called 人力車 (jin: PERSON + riki: POWER + sha: VEHICLE) which became the shorter 力車 (rikisha). These two-wheeled carts quickly replaced more traditional forms of transportation, but in the end, they, too, were replaced by motorized forms of transportation. However, rickshaw rides remain a popular tourist activity today in areas of Tokyo and Kyoto.

5. Emoji

Like many people, I was a little shocked to find out that the “emo” portion of this word does not refer to “emotion.” Written in Japanese as 絵文字 (e: PICTURE + mo: SENTENCE + ji: CHARACTER), emoji appeared on Japanese cells phones the late 1990s. These digital images quickly grew in popularity and replaced emoticons - combinations of punctuation, letters, and numbers used to express a feeling or mood. By 2010, emojis became standard on different operating systems and messaging services and have grown in terms of variety and complexity, providing users even more choices to express themselves.

Emojis with keyboard

6. Skosh

Last but not least is the “smallest” word we’ll examine today. Of all the loan words I looked into for this post, this was the most surprising. I have been living in Japan for more than 13 years, and I cannot believe I never made the connection. In Japanese, the word consists of kanji and katakana (one of Japan’s two phonetic alphabets) and is written as 少し (suko: LITTLE + shi: adjective suffix). Just like honcho, skosh, which means “a small amount,” was brought into English by US soldiers stationed in Japan and made popular during the Korean War. One wonderful synonym is “smidgen,” which, of course, is a Scottish loan word.

Ex. “The chef sprinkled a skosh of oregano on the pasta.”

Constant change

Human language is a messy, organic process, ever evolving. Perhaps Heraclitus, an Ancient Greek philosopher, put it best in his translated quote: “The only thing that is constant is change.”

For me, this is one of the joys of being a reader and writer. I never know what I am going to see next.


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Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.

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