Japanese Words in English

You may be surprised by some of the English words that come from Japanese and by some of the foreign-based words common in Japanese.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #467

Words with Perhaps Surprising Japanese Origins

Now let's move on to some English words you might not know come from Japanese. First we can play sudoku or kenken. Both games involve numbers. In sudoku, the goal is to put the numbers 1 through 9 once in each line across, once in each line down, and once in a box. The word sudoku, which first appeared in Japan in 1984, is short for a Japanese expression that means “the digits are limited to one occurrence.” (8)

Kenken works on the same principle as sudoku, in that only one of the same number can appear in one line or box, but it involves addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Ken means "wisdom" in Japanese, (9) and so perhaps you need a double dose of wisdom to solve a kenken puzzle. Or maybe just some practice.

Let's discuss some other English words that come from Japanese. First is rickshaw, an old-style vehicle pulled by a person. Our English word originated with the Japanese word jinrikisha [jin-ricky-shah], which literally means “person strength vehicle.” (10) Next is tycoon, which comes from the Japanese taikun, [tie-coon] which translates as “great prince.” (11) Then there's honcho, as in head honcho. Honcho started its life as the Japanese word hancho, [hahn-choe] which literally means “group leader.” The word came to the U.S. with the servicemen who had been stationed in Japan during the occupation following World War II. (12)

Before moving on to foreign words used in Japanese, we're going to cover one more Japanese word that we use in English. It's a hybrid of some Japanese and a shortened word borrowed from English. Maybe you've tried it. Yes, it's that very embarrassing concept of karaoke, pronounced in Japanese as ka-ra-oh-kay. Remember how the kara in karate means “empty”? Same meaning here. The second part of the word—oke—is short for the borrowed English word orchestra, and so karaoke literally means “empty orchestra.” (13) Neat, huh?


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.