Word for Wednesday: Karaoke and Karate

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Both Karaoke and Karate are Japanese loanwords.

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’).

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’!

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.


09 Dec 2015
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