Articles on Japan / Culture

Loan Words: A Game of Telephone?

It’s always interesting to me to hear how our words in English have entered the Japanese language. But while some retain the same meaning, there are quite a few that have been twisted so that the new meaning is similar enough to be understood when explained, but also different enough to be misunderstood. They are called Wasei Eigo (和製英語), or Japanese-made English. Feel free to add some warped loanwords that you know from any language in the comments!


• カミングアウト: Coming Out

Coming out isn’t always used the same way we use it – that is to say, letting people know your sexual orientation. In Japanese it simply means to make a confession. There are a few times I’ve been shocked to hear Yuuki say he was ‘coming out’ only to have him say he ate all the chocolate or something.


• ドメスティック: Domestic

When I asked Yuuki for ideas, he said said when Japanese people hear the word ‘domestic,’ it gives them an image of a man hitting his wife. The words ‘domestic violence’ have become a common phrase in Japan, often even shortened to ‘DV,’ so that now just hearing the word ‘domestic’ is associated with domestic violence for many Japanese people.


• マンション: Mansion

This simply means an apartment building. I imagine there’s been a few misunderstandings in the past where an English-speaking person was surprised to hear that their Japanese friend lives in a mansion.


• バイキング: Viking

This means buffet! I guess because…Vikings were hungry? The truth is only slightly different than my guess.


The tension arises in our relationship as once again Yuuki insists that ham is bacon.

The tension in our relationship is palpable as once again Yuuki insists that ham is bacon on our latest trip to a viking buffet.


• ベーコン: Bacon

This one is debatable. In fact, I’ve gotten into debates about it before. But people in Japan seem to call a lot of things bacon that I would call ham. Now if you order a burger with bacon, you will get the same thing as you would get in America. But with some things, especially pasta, you get something like this. Maybe you would still call that bacon, but personally I wouldn’t.


• コンセント: Consent

If you don’t already know, can you guess what this might mean? Well, you’re wrong. How do I know you were wrong? Because it means outlet, and you’d have to be a special kind of crazy to have thought of that without prior knowledge. Yes, as in those things you use to charge up your pretty laptop, and nothing to do with giving permission. Apparently it comes from “concentric plug.”


•  ゴージャス: Gorgeous

This one sort of means the same thing as its English counterpart, but it has a bit of a different nuance. It has an added connotation of being wealthy and blinged out.


• フライドポテト: Fried potato

This is what we would call French fries (or freedom fries for the ‘true’ American).


• テレビゲーム: TV game

Video game. Makes sense, but can take a little bit of getting used to. However, I think most Japanese people will understand if you say ビデオゲーム instead.


ドンマイ: Don’t mind

This would be the Japanese equivalent of “never mind,” but it can also be used to mean “don’t worry about it.” A good example of how the loan words/phrases can be easily understood, but not quite the same as their original counterparts.


• サラリーマン: Salaryman

This one is probably the most well-known of all of them, and means, as you might have guessed, “businessman.”


• OL: Office lady

In Japanese they often refer to businesswomen by the acronym “OL.” This always kind of bothered me, and comparing it with salaryman above I think understand why now. To me this imbalance implies that the businessman is there to earn a salary, while the woman is there moreso to decorate the office. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, and maybe the sexist kanji has gotten to me, but that’s how I feel when I hear “OL.”


• スキンシップ: Skinship

Skin + Friendship/Relationship = Skinship. I don’t really know of a good term in English that quite has the same nuance as this, but I think you can understand from the equation that it’s physical contact as an aspect of your relationship with someone.


• フリーサイズ: Free size

One size fits all!


• ジェットコースター: Jet coaster

Not too far off the mark here either. This one means Roller coaster.


While I’ve studied a few other languages, I haven’t studied any of them in enough depth to know any loan words that have changed meanings. So if you’ve studied a language other than Japanese, or thought of some in Japanese that aren’t on this list, please comment below! I think it’s really interesting to see how the meanings are changed or altered when they enter a different language.


7 thoughts on “Loan Words: A Game of Telephone?

  1. Hey, I also live in a “mansion”!– i.e., an apartment building (I’m in Thailand). Other fun things from Thai…
    – a word pronounced something like “soup-tah” means superstar
    – to “clee-uh” means to straighten out a disagreement or misunderstanding with someone, (from English “clear”, like clearing things up?)
    – if you “taw-ruh-mahn” (from “torment”), it means you’re the one who’s suffering terribly

    • Wow, that’s really interesting!! Thank you for sharing! It’s funny how they can shorten words too, I think I’ll have to post about that too. Like your example of soup-tah in Thai, there’s a lot of Japanese words that are abbreviations from English but still have the same meaning. Like “remocon” is remote controller and “pasocon” is personal computer

      • Well one of the most ubiquitous “shortened English words” in Thai is pronounced something like “ay-uh”, it comes from “air” — meaning “air conditioning”. Then there’s “motosai” (from “motorcycle”). But “soup-tah” is cool because they’ve eviscerated the middle syllables, making it’s origin so hard to recognize. Can’t think of others like that right now.

  2. Pingback: The Drive Home (Takeda Jō Part III) | An Inkling

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