ENGLISH IN JAPANESE.

That’s the title of a book by Akira Miura that I picked up on my last visit to the Strand. It contains a selection of the many English loanwords in Japanese, and it has that combination of scrupulous accuracy (in this case, even giving pitch contours, which I have replaced with an acute accent on the last high-pitched vowel) and wide-ranging, even eccentric, commentary that I find almost impossible to resist. Some sample entries:

baipuréeyaa (lit. byplayer)
A supporting actor or actress is called wither wakiyaku, a non-loan, or baipureeyaa, a pseudo-loan. Baipureeyaa is such a cleverly made pseudo-loan that most scholars don’t seem to realize that there is no such word as *byplayer in English. Of all the dictionaries and other publications I consulted, Bunkacho (p. 69) was the only one that pointed this out. In fact, most loanword dictionaries list the nonexistent English *byplayer as the origin of baipureeyaa!
beniya-íta (< veneer + Japanese ita ‘board’)
Veneer was introduced into Japanese in the Taisho era (1912-26) and became beniya (Arakawa, p. 1207). Later, however, the non–loan word íta ‘board’ was added to form beniya-ita (lit. veneer board). *Veneer board would, of course, be redundant in English, but since beniya alone would have sounded a little too unfamiliar to most Japanese, it is quite understandable why ita was added to make the meaning clear. Concerning this point, Umegaki (1975b, p. 208) proposes an extremely interesting hypothesis. He suggests that beniya must have been misinterpreted by some Japanese as the name of a lumber dealer since, as everyone knows, the names of many Japanese stores, dealers, and manufacturers have the suffix -ya at the end, as in the case of Matsu-ya and Fuji-ya. According to Umegaki, people who thus analyzed the word as Beni plus -ya must haave added ita to indicate ‘boards manufactured by Beni-ya’! Be that as it may, beniya-ita has since come to mean not only ‘veneer’ but also ‘plywood.’ In other words, although veneer and plywood mean two different things in English, beniya-ita covers the meanings of both in Japanese.
cháko (< chalk) Chako, from English chalk, refers to a special kind of chalk used for marking in sewing. The regular kind of chalk used for writing on a blackboard is chóoku, also from chalk. The fact that chako does not reflect the spelling of chalk indicates that the word was learned through the ear.
Chalk is one of the limited number of English words that have yielded more than one corresponding loanword in Japanese. Other examples of this type are iron (which has become both aian ‘an iron-headed golf club’ and airon ‘an iron for pressing clothes’) and ruby (which has produced both rúbi ‘small kana printed alongside Chinese characters’ and rúbii ‘a kind of jewel’).

Some other interesting loans: fákku ‘fuck’ (he warns Japanese readers that the English word is “far more strident”), feminísuto (which means ‘man who is indulgent with women,’ giving his seat to them or buying presents for them, rather than ‘feminist’), hóchikisu ‘stapler’ (from the name of its inventor, Hotchkiss), and múudii (which is from “moody” but is associated by Japanese with “mood music” and thus has the implication ‘creating a pleasant, langorous mood,’ which can cause problems when Japanese try using the word in English).

Comments

  1. I wonder if baipureeyaa has roots in “bit player”?

  2. The bit about adding ‘ita’ to ‘beniya’ reminds me of the scene in “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” when Sam looks at their food supply and calls it “lembas bread”. In the books, it’s just called “lembas”, which is glossed as “way-bread”, but I guess the screenwriter tacked “bread” onto that to minimize audience confusion without having to insert a language lesson.

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