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

Use of Foreign Words in Japanese

Japanese has borrowed many words from other languages, especially Chinese and English. (14) Words of non-Chinese origin are written with the script called katakana [ka-ta-ka-na] and are pronounced with 48 basic Japanese syllables. (15) For example, words such as bed and door are used in Japanese, but they are written in katakana and are pronounced “beh-doh” and “doh-ah,” respectively. Western beds and doors are actually foreign concepts; Japanese mattresses are futons, as we've already discussed, and traditional room separators are sliding paper and wood screens called shoji [show-gee]. (16)

The word ramen—while common in English these days and, incidentally, very yummy!—actually originates from the Chinese for “pull noodle.” (17) Another food you'll find in Japan is Western-style bread, called pan, after the Spanish word that means "bread." Are you going to Japan and looking for a casual part-time job? You'll be searching for an arbeit job, pronounced “ah-ru-buy-toe,” after the German word Arbeit, which means “employment” or “work.” (18, 19)

Many loan words in Japanese are shortened versions of English words, as we saw with karaoke and the shortening of the word orchestra at the end of it. Common examples are suu-paa (supermarket), de-pa-a-to (department store), and wa-a-pu-ro (word processor). (20) One more word before we go: Pokemon. The name of this popular kids game is a shortened version of pocket monsters, pronounced in katakana as “po-ke-to-mon-su-ta.” (21)

Well, this episode has been a bit of a tongue workout. I'll close with an easy-to-pronounce phrase that young Japanese might say to each other: bai-bai!

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga Mills author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.


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11. “tycoon.” Dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tycoon. (accessed April 27, 2015).

12. “honcho.” Oxford Dictionaries.com. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/honcho. (accessed April 27, 2015).

13. “karaoke.” Merriam-Webster.com. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/karaoke. (accessed April 27, 2015).

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16. Lee van der Reyden, D. “A Brief History of Folding Screens.” Japan Shoji.com. https://www.japanshoji.com/articles/article-history.htm. (accessed April 27, 2015).

17. “ramen.” Dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ramen. (accessed April 27, 2015).

18. “Which Japanese Words Come From German?” sci.lang.japan. http://www.sljfaq.org/afaq/german.html. (accessed April 27, 2015).

19. “Translate Arbeit to English.” Babylon.com. http://translation.babylon.com/german/to-english/arbeit/. (accessed May 5, 2015).

20. “Loan Words.” Japan-Guide.com.  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2051.html. (accessed April 27, 2015).

21. “pokemon.” Dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pokemon. (accessed April 27, 2015).

Japanese food, Chinese Cabbage and Algae Miso Soup image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.