Skip to content

Language Crossroads: 5 Japanese Words That Made Their Way into English

The Japanese language is full of gairaigo, or foreign loan words. Many of these originally came from English, like aidoru (idol), panku (flat tire) or jetto kousuta (roller coaster). They may not be used exactly like their English counterparts, but that’s how languages work. They’re changed to fit the context and rules of the local lingo.

English is no stranger to this phenomenon, borrowing freely from other languages like French, Greek and Latin, and even Japanese. In a past article, we introduced five Japanese words that we use in English, like sudoku, sushi and tofu. However, there are more, some with obscure derivations you may not even know that they were originally Japanese.

Here are five of our favorite Japanese English words.

1. Tycoon

Photo: iStock/ Keith LanceAh! Abraham sempai!

We all know the word tycoon to mean a wealthy and powerful businessman. However, this definition only came into wide use after World War I. Before that, it had a less specific meaning, implying an important person. American statesman John Hay used the word to describe Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and it caught on, becoming a nickname for America’s 16th president.

Surprisingly, though, the word is actually Japanese. It entered the English language in 1860 when the first delegation of Japanese diplomats came to America. Fans of Japanese history will know that this was towards the end of the Edo period (1600-1868) when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Rather than use the word shogun, the delegates respectfully referred to their ruler as taikun, or great leader.

Their visit was widely reported in newspapers across the country, and from there, it was just a short hop, skip and jump to the American president and then to the driving force of the early 20th century, the titans of industry.

2. Skosh

Photo: iStock/ Andrii IemelyanenkoGonna’ need a skosh more.

Here’s one that’s been hiding in plain sight. One of the first adverbs Japanese language students learn is sukoshi, a small quantity of something.

By now, you’ve probably realized that the English word skosh, which also means “a small amount,” comes from this Japanese word. But how did it make the linguistic leap? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word was first used by American servicemen stationed in Japan after the end of World War II.

They spelled it phonetically like Japanese people tend to say it, dropping the U and I vowel sounds. The word spread out of Japan during the Korean War, when it was brought to the Korean peninsula by US military personnel and used as a nickname for soldiers of short stature.

3. Honcho

Photo: iStock/ Svetlana SultanaevaCan I see you in my office for a sec?

Another Japanese word that arrived via the military, honcho has a similar derivation story to skosh. While we mostly use honcho to mean a boss or leader (“He’s the head honcho of the company”), the original meaning was slightly more specific.

Soldiers captured as POWs during the Pacific War learned a few Japanese words out of necessity. One was hancho, or squad leader. To the US soldiers, it came to mean anyone in charge.

The word carried over to the Korean conflict, being used as a leader and a nickname for Korean corporals fighting alongside the Americans. The word entered the wider language when presidential candidate Barry Goldwater referred to his campaign director as the “head honcho” during a press conference in 1964.

4. Karaoke

Photo: iStock/ bbossomAlso, a great place to scream after work.

Whether you do it on a stage at a bar or privately in a small, rented room, karaoke—singing to an instrumental version of a song—is loved the world over. It’s particularly beloved in Asia, with countries like South Korea, the Philippines and, yes, Japan singing their hearts out regularly.

Filipino inventor Roberto del Rosario holds the karaoke patent, so is it a Tagalog word?

Karaoke is, in fact, a Japanese word. Del Rosario may hold the patent, but it was invented in Japan, with several engineers and musicians contributing to the technology in the late 1960s. None of these machines, however, was called karaoke.

That was a term used by musicians and sound engineers to describe any instrumental backing track for a vocal performance. The word combines the Japanese word for empty (kara) and a shortened version of the Japanese pronunciation of orchestra (oukesutora). When the orchestra is empty, you have to rely on pre-recorded music.

5. Emoji

Photo: iStock/ goodvectorThanks for making conversations shorter, Japan.

Everyone knows emojis, the pictures and symbols you use to supplement text in messages and emails. And while you may pronounce it “ee-moji” with a long E, like emotion, it’s correctly said “eh-moji” because it’s actually Japanese.

When written in Japanese, the word emoji is made up of three kanji (Japanese characters):

絵(え) (e) : Picture
文(も) (mo): Written
字(じ) (ji): Character

Together, they mean pictogram, which is exactly what emoji are. If you’ve ever wondered why your emoji list is full of traditional Japanese things like torii shrine gates and kanji, this is why.

What other English words do you know that were borrowed from Japanese? Let us know in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *