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Five Japanese Loanwords


What is a loanword?

A loanword is the term given to a word which is directly borrowed from another language and used in the recipient language without being translated first. One of the reasons why English is such a difficult language to learn (and why its spellings are so inconsistent!) is because the language is full of loanwords. Some loanwords are obvious, such as words used to describe food traditionally from other countries (such as ‘tsatsiki’ or ‘chow mein’), whereas others were borrowed so long ago that you might be surprised to discover they are loanwords at all (such as: ‘pyjamas’ or ‘breeze’).

Last week we shared a list of Japanese loanwords on Facebook and Twitter, and today we thought we’d take a look at a few of these words in more detail…*

1) Karaoke

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ‘karaoke’ was first used in English in 1979. It translates to ‘empty orchestra’, with ‘kara’ meaning ‘empty’ and ‘oke’ meaning ‘orchestra’. Interestingly, ‘oke’ is an abbreviation of the word ‘okesutora’ which is a loanword to Japanese itself – a Japanisation of the English ‘orchestra’!

2) Karate

If, in ‘karaoke’, the ‘kara’ part of the word means ‘empty’, we can guess that the literal translation of the word ‘karate’ might have something to do with the word ‘empty’ as well. ‘Te’ means ‘hand’ so ‘karate’ literally translates to ‘empty hands’, indicating the lack of weapons used in this style of martial arts. Someone who practises ‘karate’ is known as a ‘karateka’, the second ‘ka’ meaning ‘person’. The word entered English in the 1950s.

3) Kimono

The word ‘kimono’ was adopted into the English language in the 1630s - much earlier than ‘karaoke’ or ‘karate’, which are both products of the twentieth century. For those of you who don’t know the word, a ‘kimono’ is a traditional Japanese garment - click here for the Wikipedia page on its history. The word literally translates to ‘thing put on’, ‘ki’ meaning ‘wear, put on’ and ‘mono’ meaning ‘thing’.

4) Tsunami

Tsu’ means harbour, and ‘nami’ means waves. On June 15th 1896 the north east coast of Hondo (which is the main island in Japan) was hit with a great tidal wave which was widely reported on internationally, and the word ‘tsunami’ has since been used in the English language.

5) Origami

Origami’ literally translates to ‘fold paper’, from ‘ori’ meaning ‘fold’ and ‘kami’ meaning ‘paper’. It was adopted into English in the 1950s. There are plenty of origami models which are simple enough for beginners to make – why not make use of your old spelling sheets?

If you’d like to practise our full list of Japanese Loanwords using our ‘Look, Cover, Write, Check’ test, click here. Alternatively you can take one of our ‘Listen and Spell’ tests by clicking here.

If you’re in the mood for something a little lighter, all of our word games are also available using these words – make sure to check out our newest game ‘Asteroids’.

Happy Spelling!

Avani Shah

*All etymologies in this blog post are from the Online Etymology Dictionary.


03 Mar 2014
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