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Katakanago and dictionaries

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Japanese English month continues with a guest post by Yamada Shigeru. Yamada Shigeru is Professor of English at Waseda University, Tokyo, and a lexicographer.


There are abundant loanwords in Japanese. They fill the gaps, sound fashionable, but are sometimes frowned upon. Those words surely make the Japanese language rich and colorful, but Japanese sometimes need to turn to dictionaries for help.

Loanwords of other than Chinese origin are marked off by the katakana syllabary. This poses a problem. When I went to America as an exchange student, I needed a green vegetable, what we call ‘piiman’ in Japanese. Since the word sounds English and is written in katakana, I was convinced it was originally English. No matter how many times I anglicized the sound and shouted it to my host parents, I couldn’t make myself understood. Poor me! A Japanese dictionary taught me that the word was from French (piment) and the proper English term was green pepper.

The Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan compared the usage of 60 loanwords between 2002 and 2008 in terms of recognition, understanding, and actual use. The most assimilated loanword was sanpuru (sample) while the opposite was inkyubeesion (incubation). The following words rapidly gained popularity: mochibeeshon (motivation), monitaringu (monitoring), aidoring sutoppu (idling stop), insaidaa (insider). Katakanago in bureaucratic language is notoriously confusing. The 1991 survey by the National Personnel Authority revealed that over 60% of the public officials themselves showed reservations about the increasing use of katakanago in public documents, such as manpawaa (manpower), fakutaa (factor), sanpuring (sampling), pairotto sutadii (pilot study), and merukumaaru (Merkmal).

Except for technical words, there is always a semantic gap between katakanago and the original word. Katakanago tends to be used to denote a status. This fact confuses Japanese students of English. It is one of the responsibilities of Japanese-English dictionaries to deal with the gap. For example, Luminous Japanese-English Dictionary provides a note to remind users that the equivalent of bujinesuman is not businessman but office worker. There are various special dictionaries and websites on katakanago, created somewhat in the same spirit as  Robert Cawdrey’s  A Table Alphabeticall [sic.], which was published in 1604 and is generally regarded as the first monolingual English dictionary.

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Yamada Shigeru


  • I forgot to mention that a close look at EFL dictionaries can help Japanese students of English to recognize the semantic gap between ‘katakanago’ and the original. For example, MED defines ‘businessman’ as “a man who works in business, especially a manager” and CIDE gives “executives” as a non-sexist alternative to “businessmen” (Language Portrait on “sexist language,” p. 1305).

  • D’day, mate! Actually loan words research is always intriguing!!! I love that area. Speaking of “pepper, ” we have regional differences as in “capsicum” in Australia. Then, speaking of “green,” when I said, “I am craving for green peas,” to my English friend, she was like “it’s not English, we just say peas.” However, back in Tokyo, my American friend said to me, “we say green peas.” Oh, no! I am always in a labyrinth. Cheers, mate.

  • “Green peas” is very interesting. We say ‘grin piisu’ in Japanese. Since the last consonant of “peas” is devoiced, people tend to associate it with the more familiar word “peace” or “piece” without knowing that part was actually transliterated from “peas.”

  • Gosh! I wrote, “D’day!” for “G’day.” Ummmmmmmmmm, it happens when I am thinking about Normandy subconsciously. Dear Sigmund!!!
    BTW, some say “Green peace” is a rhyming joke for “green peas.” I’m not sure, though….

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