While Japan’s bank of English loan words has grown to the point where “context” and even “paradigm” can be understood by most people, there seems to be only a handful of Japanese words that have been sprinkled into the modern English vocabulary. Of course, there’s things like “manga”, “sushi,” and “karate,” which English speakers can instantly recognize as comics, a Japanese food, and a way to kick ass (in that respective order), but there are also some sleeper agent Japanese words traipsing about our English conversations. Let’s take a look at Japanese words, like “honcho” (as in “head honcho”) and “tycoon” (as in “oil tycoon”), that we use in English.
Origin: 布団 (futon)
First known use: 1876
The word futon originally applied to a Japanese-style mattress used on the floor, but in English it’s come to be known as a sofa/bed for those who can’t quite afford either. Despite the change of meaning, futon is part of the English vocabulary, we’ll just have to give a nod to Japan for the linguistic inspiration.
Origin: 銀杏 (ginkyō)
First known use: 1773
Although originally a tree of Chinese origin, the name “ginkgo” came from Japan. Etymologists seem to disagree on how the word came to be, but most claim it was created as a result of misreading the Japanese word 銀杏 (ichou) as ginkyō.
Origin: 班長 (hanchō)
First known use: 1955
Yes, we hear you all screaming, “But isn’t that Spanish?!” It’s actually not. The word “honcho” comes from the Japanese word, hanchō, meaning “squad leader.”
Origin: 本町通 (honchō dōri)
First known use: 1865
So the origins of this word are a little shady, hence the asterisk. Some say the word comes from an obsolete dialect of English, but others say the origins lie in Japan. The story goes that honchō dōri was the main thoroughfare that lead American sailors back to the port. If they found honchō dōri, said as “hunky-dory,” they knew they could find their way home. Other sources claim honchō dōri was a road in Japan that catered to the “needs” of American sailors abroad, making them feel nice and hunky-dory.
Origin: カラオケ (karaoke)
First known use: 1979
Many Japanese language learners may already know this, but not only was karaoke invented in Japan, the name was taken straight from Japanese, kara, meaning empty and ōke, short for ōkesutora (orchestra).
Origin: 人力車 (jinrikisha)
First known use: 1887
You may think rickshaws are from China, but they were actually invented in Japan in 1869, and used in China four years later. The word, rickshaw, comes from a corruption of the original Japanese, jinrikisha, which literally means “human powered vehicle.”
Origin: 少し (sukoshi)
First known use: 1952
Skosh, as in “just a skosh off the top” or “give me a skosh more,” was created by shortening the Japanese word sukoshi, which means “a little.” Our minds are blown!
Origin: 醤油 (shōyu)
First known use: 1679
Although etymologists point to many possible origins of the word soy, it’s thought that the term is a corruption of the Japanese word for soy sauce, shōyu.
Origin: 津波 (tsunami)
First known use: 1897
A giant sea wave is called a tsunami in English, just like it is in Japanese, although with a slightly different pronunciation. Tsunami literally means “harbor wave” in Japanese.
Origin: 大君 (taikun)
First known use: 1857
The title of taikun was applied by foreigners to the shogun of Japan in the mid 1800s but the English version, tycoon, is used to describe any wealthy or powerful person in business. All those years of playing RollerCoaster Tycoon and I never knew the word came from Japan…
“Anime” came from the Japanese version of the English word, “animation” (animeshon). It’s now an English word that means “Japanese cartoons.” From English to Japanese and right back to English. Words are so cool.