We know that the Japanese language has borrowed more than a few words from the English language. But what about the other way round? Are there any English words that are actually of Japanese origin?
There are, actually. In fact, there are quite a few words that we use often. Of course, the usual suspects “ramen” and “sushi” are obviously from the Japanese language, along with “samurai” and “kimono”. But there are a handful of words that aren’t as known and obvious.
We’ve compiled a short but interesting list of 10 English words that are actually really Japanese. Keep scrolling to find out what they are!
The paper-folding craft, known to us as “origami”, is actually of Japanese origin! The word is made up of two Japanese words: “ori” (おり) to mean “fold” and “kami” (紙) to mean “paper”. When put together, it means “folded paper”. In Japanese, though, “origami” refers to a folded official document like a certificate.
Originally, the names for this paper folding craft include “orimono”, “orikata” and “orisue”. The change to “origami” is still unclear to this day, but it’s believed to start around the 20th century. Some say it was easier for Japanese kids to spell during Japan’s kindergarten movement in the late 19th century. Others say it might be because the English translation for the word makes more sense to use it.
Will we ever know the real reason?
If you don’t know it yet, a typhoon is a rotating giant storm of wind and rain. It’s similar to a hurricane as both are kinds of tropical cyclones. This word actually comes from a Japanese word for the same thing: taifu (台風). The kanji used “風” actually means “wind”.
Did you know that word for the small symbols you type in messages is actually Japanese? “Emoji” is used to express your emotional attitude on electronic devices like smartphones and laptops, and often gives a more playful tone.
The word comes from the Japanese word “moji” (文字) which means “character” or “letter” and “e” (絵) which means “picture” or “drawing”. When put together, the meaning is like putting a picture in a letter. And now we have our beloved smiley faces.
Rickshaws are light vehicles that often have two wheels and are pulled by a person. Usually, the person is either pulling it while on foot or on a bicycle. You often see this in Asia, and first used in Japan in the late 1800s.
Originally, the word “rickshaw” (which is also spelled as “ricksha”) had another syllable in front of it. The original word was “jinricksha”, sometimes spelled as “jinrikisha”. This word comes from the Japanese language. It’s a combination of three words: “jin” (人) to mean “man”, “riki” (力) to mean “strength” and “sha” (車) to mean “carriage”. When you put it together, it means “strong man carriage”.
If you like puzzles, then you probably have played sudoku before. This 9×9 grid of squares contains 3×3 boxes. Each box has the numbers 1 to 9, and every row of the grid also has to contain the numbers 1 to 9.
The word “sudoku” is actually the short form of the Japanese phrase “sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru”. This means “the numerals must remain single” — it’s saying that the digits can only appear once. The word “sudoku” itself only made it into English publications early this century.
Maybe not all of you know this word — heck, I didn’t — but “skosh” means “a small amount”. This word was introduced by the US soldiers who were stationed in Japan after World War II. They learned the word from the Japanese word “sukoshi” (少し). This Japanese word, when spoken, is pronounced “skoh-shee”.
Is your boss at work a hotshot? Then he’s a “honcho”. This word refers to the person in charge of other people. It was introduced by the Americans who were imprisoned in Japan during the Second World War.
“Honcho” comes from the Japanese word “hanchō” (班長) to mean “squad leader”. “Han” refers to “squad” and “chō” refers to “head” or “chief”.
That cotton-filled mattress on your bed, couch or chair is known as a “futon”. This is a word we all commonly use, but did you know it’s actually a Japanese word? Futon, spelled and pronounced the same in Japanese as 布団, is a staple of small apartments and dorms.
In English, futon is something that you sleep on, but in Japanese, it can refer to a thick comforter.
Don’t mistake this word for the tropical cyclone. A tycoon is someone who is a top leader, usually in politics, or a very wealthy businessperson. This word is often used in the latter meaning.
How the word came to be associated with the meaning of a political leader is interesting. The first time an American consul came to Japan after the country opened up its borders, the shogun (the military deputy) was assumed to be a secular emperor. The American thought the shogun’s title was “taikun”, like the Chinese characters “dà” to mean “great” and “jūn” to mean “prince.” The spelling “tycoon” became popular in America to refer to political leaders, but began to fade in usage.
It was revived in the 1920s in journalism to refer to wealthy businessmen.
Our last word is something you wouldn’t quite expect to be of Japanese origin. To be honest, the origin of this term is still a mystery to this day. “Hunky-dory”, as we all know, means “fine” or “satisfactory”.
The term “hunky” came from the Dutch “honk” to mean “home”. In the 19th century, this became an adjective to mean “all right” or “safe and sound”. A theory of how “dory” came about is when American sailors were stationed in Japan. There was a thoroughfare that the sailors often used and described it as “hunky”. The Japanese word for “road” is “tori” or “dori” (取). It could be said that the sailors might’ve combined the two words to refer to that as a “satisfactory street”.
Which word surprises you the most?
As we said earlier, there are more English words that are derived from the Japanese language, but I think that these 10 are the most unique ones. Out of them all, which ones did you not expect to be of Japanese origin?