global English language change and slang

Are you open to open kimonos?

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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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Stan Carey

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