Are you open to open kimonos?

Posted by on July 28, 2011

The phrase open kimono was recently added to Macmillan’s Open Dictionary:

“when something such as a meeting is described as being ‘open kimono’, it means the participants share openly and keep no secrets”

A kimono is a traditional form of clothing in Japan that is wrapped around the body. It’s worn by women, men, and children. Given the widespread taboo over exposed genitals and even underwear, open kimono – often seen in the verb phrase open the kimono – is a vividly effective metaphor for conveying transparency and frankness.

It’s semantically similar to an open book, which refers to people, but open kimono refers to a way of dealing with information, especially sensitive information like strategic plans or financial data. It is consistent with how Diane Nicholls describes honesty in her article about its metaphors: “honesty is bare and open”, something I discuss further in this post.

Open kimono has become something of a buzzword in business English. I saw a couple of websites describe it as 1990s business jargon, and it appears in an unofficial Microsoft Lexicon from that time. It is now familiar enough to be used in headers by major newspapers such as The Financial Times and The Australian.

Sometimes what appears to be a new expression is in fact a considerably older one that has recently become popular. The Double-Tongued Dictionary found open the kimono in an article in Folklore Studies in 1959, referring to the sexual behaviour of a wolf. As long ago as 1979, it occurred in a more everyday context – a report in an American newspaper – in an amusingly extended metaphor:

We started four years ago with opening the kimono (budget book) and now we’re caught without our underwear.

Linguist Daniel Everett has stressed the importance of culture in language. I wonder whether the idiom arose from Japanese culture or from other people’s ideas of it. A post on Open Salon quotes a Japanese lecturer who thinks it might be related to a Japanese idiom meaning “to relax, speak and behave openly”.

Whatever its origin, open kimono is currently on a gradual and steady rise in English, as this Google Ngram shows. I have no strong feelings about the phrase, but I do find it quite comical, and if I heard it used in a corporate context I think it would be an open invitation to giggle.

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Comments (9)
  • Another humorous saying related to this is “blow warm air up our skirts.” It means that someone is being deceptive to provide comfort. “He said he was going to open the kimono, but he just blew warm air up our skirts.”

    Posted by Rich Cunningham on 28th July, 2011
  • That’s a good one, Rich, and I like how you combined them. My dialect has a somewhat similar expression, plámás, borrowed from Irish; it means cajolery or empty flattery.

    Posted by Stan on 28th July, 2011
  • Thanks for this. I’ve been in business for 25 years and been a business journalist and publisher for 15, but I’d never come across this term till a couple of weeks ago. My instinct was to disapprove, simply because when I saw it in context I still didn’t understand it.

    Posted by Patrick Neylan on 28th July, 2011
  • You’re welcome, Patrick. I’ve never seen or heard the expression in the wild (apart from when I went looking for it), but it seems to be catching on gradually in business jargon. It’s an amusing metaphor, but not an immediately transparent one.

    Incidentally, Ben Zimmer told me he found evidence of its use as a business buzzword dating from the early 1970s.

    Posted by Stan on 29th July, 2011
  • […] prolific Mr. Carey also had posts on the expression open kimono, and the ongoing fuss over the word ongoing, as was Lynneguist, aka Lynne Murphy, with a guest post […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 29th July, 2011
  • […] there’s “Are you open to open kimonos?”, a short account of the phrase open kimono. A rather strange but memorable metaphor, it has […]

    Posted by Dialects and dimpsy doddermen « Sentence first on 4th August, 2011
  • I was chatting online on IRC the other day (using the handle “jcowan”, as I generally do), and I said “Okay, I’ll open the kimono now”, meaning “I’ll reveal the hidden motivation behind the questions I have been asking.” My correspondent replied “I hope the J stands for Julie!”

    Posted by John Cowan on 4th August, 2011
  • John/Julie: Ha! The metaphor does invite quips and double entendres.

    Posted by Stan on 5th August, 2011
  • […] MacMillan Dictionary points to Google trends that show open the kimono usage is inexorably rising. However, if you feel tempted to use this phrase in everyday conversation, perhaps on your next […]

    Posted by Phrases on Friday: The Tasteless Origins of Creepy Corporate Jargon | The Procrastiwriter on 8th November, 2013
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