Did you know these English words originated from Japanese?

Japanese culture gives us such words as geisha, haiku, kimono, wasabi, and zen, as well as several terms from Japanese martial arts

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By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Fri 1 Apr 2022, 8:46 PM

In previous columns, I’ve talked about the remarkable capacity of the English language to borrow and absorb, in regular usage, words from other languages. I’ve mentioned words that originated in French and German before coming into common use in English, and I’ve done two columns of words that originated in a variety of Indian languages. But an even more unlikely contender for loaning words to the English language is Japanese.

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you all to tsundoku, which refers to the growing pile of unread books one acquires or buys, without finding the time to read them. Most people know tycoon, to refer to an opulently wealthy business magnate, and honcho, for chief, are derived from Japanese, as (of course) is karaoke. Kids will tell you about the Japanese terms manga (comic books and graphic novels) and anime (a reverse usage from the English “animation”); elegant homemakers will know bonsai, ikebana and origami from their décor. Even more people speak of ramen noodles and sleep on a futon without realising these words came from Japanese, too. But there are several other Japanese words which — though not as widely understood as “rendezvous” (from French) or “zeitgeist” (from German) — are nonetheless finding increasing acceptance in English, as words that describe something better than any existing words in our dictionaries.

My favourite Japanese loan word is probably wabi-sabi, a marvelous term that means accepting imperfection as a natural part of life. The Japanese are actually perfectionists — spotlessly clean, neat and well-organised — so it may surprise you that they have developed a philosophical acceptance of the idea that not everything is perfect, permanent or immutable; things and people eventually decay and die. An attitude of wabi-sabi also extends to aesthetics, like admiring an object because of a natural flaw in it rather than demanding that it be blemish-free.

Better known is perhaps ikigai, a term that summarises your sense of purpose in life. More and more I find new-age friends referring to some source of motivation as ikigai — the sense of purpose that drives them on to taking on new challenges. Someone whose ikigai hasn’t yet been ignited might be boketto, unfocused and day-dreaming, staring vacantly into space, aimless and unpurposeful.

Japanese culture also gives us such words as geisha, haiku, kimono, wasabi, and zen, as well as several terms from Japanese martial arts, such as judo, ju-jitsu, karate, and ninja, but also dojo (a room or padded mat for judo). Japanese also has some lovely terms for people and relationships that English culture did not generate. A friend you can always rely upon in times of need, someone who will always be there for you, is majime, a word which encapsulates a number of qualities — reliability, sincerity, willingness to put in the hard yards. It’s unlikely that a majime can be an ozappa, a person who is totally relaxed, unfazed by adversity and, by and large, couldn’t care less about anything at all. A very different kind of relationship is conjured up by Koi No Yokan, the feeling you get when you meet a stranger and are so taken by her or him that you are sure you will fall in love with them — even if you have just met them.

Just as the Eskimo language is said to have seventeen different words for different types of snow and ice to distinguish them (whereas Hindi, for instance, just has “baraf” to cover both snow and ice, since Hindi-speakers see so little of either), so also Japanese has very precise words for weather. The word kogarashi has made its way into English usage to refer to the first cold winds of the late autumn season that alert you that winter is around the corner.

American English has become fond of the word skosh, a synonym of “tad” or “smidgen” — such as in “could you turn the air-conditioning up a skosh”? It comes from the Japanese word sukoshu, which means the same thing — a spot, a dash. (You could ask an Indian waiter for a skosh of milk in your tea, but I wouldn’t be optimistic about the results.) Indians assume that the English word rickshaw, pronounced riksha in Hindi, originated in the subcontinent, but in fact it comes from the Japanese word jinrikisha — jin means “man” riki means “strength” or “power” and sha means “carriage”.

But why worry about words at all, you might well ask, when the Japanese have given us emojis, those clever little pictures that serve increasingly as a substitute for text? Perhaps, we should just say sayonara to the whole subject?


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