As I mentioned in a few previous blogs, the Japanese love to borrow and adapt technology and goods from other cultures. Language is certainly no exception to this rule.
The modern Japanese language includes thousands of foreign loanwords – many of which are used on a daily basis. There is even a special writing system – called katakana – used solely for loanwords. While in the past the majority of borrowed words came from China, today the most common source of these words is English.
The meaning of some loanwords from English can be quite clear to native English speakers. Take, for example, the word “sakka.” Or, to spell it a little unconventionally, “sah-kah.” It may be hard to guess the meaning of this word just from looking at the above spellings, but I’m sure most English speakers could figure it out quickly if they heard it spoken aloud. It means, “soccer.”
The usage and meaning of other English loanwords will make little sense to native speakers of English. There are many false friends – words that look and sound similar, but differ in meaning. Additionally, there are words that masquerade as loanwords, but were really never even “real” English. This phenomenon is referred to as, “wasei eigo” – Japanese-made English. For instance, the word “sarariman.” It is a combination of two English words – “salaried” and “man.” Put together, they form the new word, “salaryman.” What’s a salaryman? A man who works for a company and receives an annual salary.
I’ve picked a couple of my favorite “katakana words” to share with you today:
Borrowed from: Fight
You might think this means: to engage in a physical struggle; to get in a heated argument
What it actually means: You can do it! / Don’t give up!
When cheering on your school’s baseball team…
頑張れ (gannbare)！頑張れ (gannbare)！ファイト (faito)！ファイト！ (faito) / Do your best! Do your best! You can do it! Don’t give up!
2. ドンマイ (Don mai)
Borrowed from: “Don’t mind.”
You might think this means: “Don’t pay any attention to (insert name/thing/whatever).” / “It’s not important.”
What it actually means: Don’t worry about it. / It’s O.K.!
When a classmate mispronounces a word during English class…
大丈夫よ(daijyoubu yo)！ドンマイ！(don mai) / It’s O.K.! Don’t worry about it!
3. ショック (shokku)
Borrowed from: shock
You might think this means: to be electrocuted; to feel a sudden flash of heat through your body; to be surprised
What it actually means: I can’t believe it! (negative connotation)
While swapping stories with a friend…
本当に言った (hontou ni yutta）？！ショックを受けたね。(shokku wo uketa ne) / (He/she) really said that? What a shock, huh.
4. サービス (sabisu)
Borrowed from: service
You might think this means: to serve someone; to help someone
What it actually means: to receive something for free / “It’s on the house.”
When the waitress brings an extra serving of french fries to your table…
どうぞお召し上がりください。(douzo omeshiagari kudasai) サビスでございます。(sabisu de gozaimasu) / Please enjoy. It’s on the house.
5. マイペース (mai pesu)
Borrowed from: my pace
You might think this means: the way I work, how fast I’m going to do something
What it actually means: To walk at the beat of your own drum; to take one’s (leisurely) time (negative connotation)
When gossiping with a coworker…
マイペースだよね。(mai pesu dayone) / (That person) really does things at their own pace, huh…
Could you guess the meaning of each word/phrase? There is so much culture infused in language – it’s fascinating.