I’m reading a (surprisingly good) book by Lucy Herndon Crockett called Popcorn on the Ginza (William Sloane Associates, 1949), about the first few years of the Occupation of Japan (she was there with the Red Cross from 1945 to 1947 and has left no biographical trace online that I can find, apart from a stint as a Bread Loaf fellow in 1949); on p. 144 I ran across a word that has stumped me: “The only death to date of an Occupationer at the hands of our former bitter enemy is that of an Air Force lieutenant who, about to return to his fiancée in the States, was poisoned in a geisha house by his corbito, who then took her own life.” (Italics in original.) “Corbito” gets a few hundred Google hits, but they’re all family names as far as I can tell, and the word is not in any of my dictionaries. It occurred to me that it might be an odd anglicization of some Japanese word based on hito ‘person’ (which can become –bito in compounds), but I haven’t found such a word in my Japanese dictionaries. Any ideas?

In the category of “my, how things change in half a century,” here’s a snippet from a section on weird Japanese food:

Half an hour later the artist’s wife brought in a plate of hot roasted chestnuts in sweet syrup of which no one could complain, then Japanese “sandwiches”—slices of a roll of cold vinegary rice wrapped in what looked like fish skin but was actually seaweed, in the middle of which were bits of fish, pickles, scrambled eggs, and I would hesitate to guess what else.

If you’d told her that Americans would get so addicted to those “sandwiches” in the ’90s that chain restaurants would have special sections devoted to them and well-off New Yorkers would spend $300 a meal for them, she would have thought you were out of your mind.


  1. The obvious source of corbito would be koibito (恋人), “lover”, though those more proficient in the language than myself may have other ideas.
    As I recall (from a book I don’t have to hand, so I can’t check the details), a Japanese-English pidgin did exist at this time – corbito might be an example of this.

  2. koibito was my first thought, too, especially given the context. (if you have a non-rhotic accent, “corbito” is actually not too bad an approximation)
    Half a century later, (many) Japanese people are STILL amazed when you tell them that those “sandwiches” have become so popular that many chain restaurants have etc.!

  3. Koibito it is, then. (Ms. Crockett was from Virginia and presumably had a Southehn non-rhotic accent.) Doomo arigato gozaimashita!

  4. When she was about 9 years old, my niece loved sushi. She didn’t completely have the idea, though. It wasn’t a delicacy to her — she shoveled it down like mashed potatoes. Squid and urchin eggs were her favorites.

  5. Guess I’m late to the party, but if I were a betting man (and God help me I am) I’d put it all down on koibito myself, though I’ll wager (someone stop me!)it’s a typo and not a representation of any mispronunciation on Ms. Crockett’s part.

  6. Could be, but the book is pretty thoroughly proofread (as was commonly the case in those bygone days of yore), and if she were straighforwardly transliterating the Japanese word she would presumably have used a k, not a c. (Interesting: a Google search on “coibito” turns up a bunch of Korean sites. Can any Korean-speakers let us know what’s going on there?) I suspect the Japanese word got passed around among Westerners, some of who may not even have known it was Japanese (it sounds vaguely Spanish, and a lot of the Occupation people had been with Macarthur in the Philippines and were presumably used to hearing Spanish loanwords), and at some point it got standardized, however shakily and temporarily and locally, as “corbito.” Either that or it was simply the author’s personal usage, which she defended against the copy editor’s attempts to change it to a more comprehensible word. I’d love to ask her, but I suspect she’s passed on to that great Canteen in the Sky by now.

  7. In the movie Desperately Seeking Susan, a cab driver says something along the lines of:
    “I tried some of that sushi the other day. Took it home. Cooked it. Tasted just like normal fish.”
    And that was in 1985.

  8. I don’t speak Korean, but it looks like most of those hits are posts to Korean bulletin boards under the name “coibito” and references to the Japanese word (song titles, etc.). Maybe the “c” instead of a “k” was influenced by the urban legend about why “corea” became “korea” (i.e. because Japan, occupying the country at the time, wanted to come first in the alphabetical English lists of countries).

  9. Ah, an ingenious and quite possibly true explanation.

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