Konnichiwa, let’s look for Japanese words that travelled to English

Recently, while grabbing some quick news bites along with my morning brew, I came across the word ‘kamikaze’: Russia launches ‘kamikaze’ drone attacks on Ukraine. Thinking it would be an interesting word to ask in the college spelling bee contest for which I was preparing questions, I put it as the first word for the final round. To my pleasant surprise, the student to whom the word went spelt it out correctly. I didn’t ask and am not sure if she would have got the meaning right too. That, however, made me go hunting for Japanese words which feel quite at home in the English language.

‘Kamikaze’ getting into English can be traced back to World War II, when it referred to Japanese pilots who made deliberate suicidal crashes into enemy targets, usually ships. The word is also applied to an aircraft loaded with explosives used in such an attack, and is used frequently as an adjective. In Japanese, it means ‘divine wind’, originally applied to typhoons that twice sank Chinese fleets sent by Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor, to invade Japan.

Almost similar in meaning but used in the context of a ritual suicide is the word ‘hara-kiri’, which often finds its way into English usage. In Japanese, it refers to the ritual of slashing open the abdomen, literally belly-slashing. However, the word is vulgar in Japanese and a more preferred one is ‘seppuku’, which literally means ‘stab the abdomen’. To use it in a sentence, we may say ‘by talking back to his boss, he committed a professional hara-kiri and since then has not been able to land a decent job’.

Another Japanese word of World War II vintage is ‘skosh’. It comes from the Japanese word ‘sukoshi’, which was brought to the USA by its soldiers in 1950s and was a GI slang for ‘a bit’ during the Vietnam War period. Skosh, therefore, means a bit, a small amount. Like, I will have a skosh more of ice-cream, please, or I am a skosh tired.

Before I say sayonara (goodbye, remember the song from Love in Tokyo), let me list a few words that you may be using every day without being aware that they come from the Japanese language. Emoji, honcho, tycoon, hunky-dory all have interesting etymologies. Then there are quite a few words from Japanese cuisine which have travelled across the world like sushi, miso, yakitori, sukiyaki, teriyaki among others.

In case you are still not sure about the first word in the headline, it’s an informal way of saying hello.

Wordly Wise is a new weekly column. It will be published every Saturday in Explained. Please tweet your feedback to @ieexplained

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