A Japanese friend once said to me, “If you want to speak like us, it’s not enough to just learn Japanese. You have to relearn English, too.”
While the reality is perhaps not quite that extreme, it is true that there are a ton of English words and phrases used in a uniquely Japanese way. These words, called gairaigo (外来語), or ‘words of foreign origin’, are not only pronounced in a Japanese way that the average English speaker wouldn’t understand, but often have entirely different meanings as well.
There are even some completely made up ‘English’ words and phrases, called wasei eigo (和製英語, or ‘Japan-made English’) that have somehow made their way into the Japanese language. Japanese people tend to assume gairaigo and wasei eigo are ‘real’ English, and are often surprised to find they are actually unintelligible to native English speakers.
The amount of gairaigo and wasei eigo in existence is a bit overwhelming, but here are a few of the most common and/or most interesting examples.
ノートパソコン (nooto pasokon): laptop computer
Japanese people seem to like to take long English words, ‘Japanify’ their pronunciation, and then shorten them, as they have done with the two words that make up this combo: ノート, short for ノートブック, or ‘notebook’; and パソコン, short for パーソナルコンピュータ, or ‘personal computer’. ノート and パソコン are the words most commonly used in Japanese for ‘notebook’ and ‘computer’ respectively. A laptop is a computer that folds up like a notebook, so it’s called a ノートパソコン. Makes sense, right?
Nooto pasokon wa doko ni mo motte ikeru kara benri desu ne.
Laptops are convenient because you can take them anywhere.
クレーム (kureemu): complaint
Here’s an example of a word that’s come to mean something completely different than it does in English. クレーム is a Japanification of the word ‘claim’, and for some reason it means ‘complaint’. It’s most commonly used to refer to a complaint made by a customer to a business.
Kyou wa okyakusan kara kureemu bakkari de shindoi desu.
I’m getting nothing but complaints from customers today, and it’s so tiring.
サラリーマン (sarariiman) and OL (ooeru): male and female office workers
Male office workers (you know, the ones who commute to work every morning on the train in their suits and ties) are called サラリーマン (from ‘salary man’) and their female counterparts are called OL (an abbreviation of ‘office lady’).
Toukyou no saraiiman ya ooeru wa man’in densha no tsuukin de taihen desu.
It’s tough for Tokyo office workers having to commute on crowded trains.
コンセント (konsento): wall outlet; socket
This comes not from the English ‘consent’ as you might think, but rather from ‘concentric plug’, which was an old device consisting of an outlet and a plug. Eventually, that device was phased out and an outlet without a plug came to be referred to as a コンセント.
Kuukou ni konsento ga tarinakute komatteiru ryokyaku ga takusan imasu.
A lot of travelers are inconvenienced by the lack of outlets in airports.
ホッチキス, or ホチキス (hocchikisu, or hochikisu): stapler
No one seems to be entirely sure where this one came from. Some sources claim a man with the surname Hotchkiss invented the stapler, while others say Mr. Hotchkiss actually invented the machine gun and had his name attributed to the stapler in Japan by some sort of fluke.
Hocchikisu kashite kudasai.
Lend me a stapler, please.
カンニング (kannningu): cheating
This word comes from the English ‘cunning’. In Japanese it’s used as a noun rather than an adjective, and means ‘cheating’. You can also add する to the end of it to make a verb meaning ‘to cheat’.
Tesuto de kanningu suru hito wa reiten ni narimasu.
Anyone who cheats on the test will get a zero.
タレント (tarento): celebrity
From the English ‘talent’, this gairaigo actually refers to a uniquely Japanese type of celebrity who may or may not really have any talent in particular, but appears on variety shows doing all sorts of things to entertain people.
Ichiban suki na tarento wa dare? Watashi wa Bekkii ga suki!
Who’s your favorite celebrity? I like Becky!
サイン (sain): autograph
From the English ‘sign’, this refers not to a signature but to an autograph (of the sort you might get from a タレント). It can also be made into a verb with する.
Ninki tarento ni sain shite moratta!
I got an autograph from a popular celebrity!
マイペース (mai peesu): one’s own pace
Unlike what it might sound like in English, it should be noted that the term マイペース generally has a negative connotation (as in the example below).
There are also some other wasei eigo phrases that use the English ‘my’ to mean ‘one’s own’: namely マイカー (mai kaa), meaning ‘one’s own car’, マイホーム (mai hoomu), meaning ‘one’s own home’, and even マイ箸 (maihashi), meaning ‘one’s own chopsticks (to be carried around for eating on the go)’.
Ano hito wa itsumo mai peesu de tekitou dakara shoushin dekinai n da yo. Chotto doryoku shitereba ima no tokoro seikou shitete mai hoomu mo motteru hazu nanoni.
That guy can’t get promoted because he’s always going at his own pace and doesn’t take things seriously. If he had put in some effort, he would be successful and even own a home by now.
ワンピース (wan piisu): a dress
A ‘one piece’ in Japanese is not a type of bathing suit, but a dress. (That is unless we’re talking about the popular anime One Piece, in which case it means something else entirely.) It does make sense, since a dress is an alternative to a ‘two piece’ ensemble of a shirt and a skirt.
Kono wan piisu kaou kana? Chotto takai kedo, sugoku kawaii kara!
I wonder if I should buy this dress? It’s a bit expensive, but it’s so cute!
There are of course many more gairaigo and wasei eigo than the ones listed here, but these should give you a start! What other gairaigo or wasei eigo have you come across? Do you have any favorites?
Cover image by Gwydion M. Williams.