Buzzwords belong in the category of catchwords and catch phrases. Like cliches — though not always as long-lived as cliches — they capture the imagination of a nation and are used in many contexts. In Japanese, buzzwords are called hayarikotoba and, as such, often do hayarisutari (pop into, then out of, fashion).
Being a fad-loving people from long ago, the Japanese do like their buzzwords. Let’s go back a bit into the past to see how some of these came about.
During the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945-1952), the Japanese created a number of buzzwords from GI English. Perhaps the most famous of these is tondemo happun, a variation on tondemo(nai) and “happen,” hence, “never happen, no way.” Because happun also means “8 minutes” and tonde also means “flying,” this phrase was often heard in the nonsensical joke, tondemo happun aruite juppun, or “8 minutes by air, 10 by foot.”
Two other buzzwords that are at least 50 years old and still in use today are saiko and saitei, or more colloquially, saite. These came to be used for “out of this world, groovy” and “disgusting, the pits.” They have been adopted by at least two generations since they were coined, quite a feat for catchwords.
Rushing into the ’60s we have kawaikochan for “a cutey, a honey,” and that colorful catchphrase coined by essayist Soichi Oya, ekiben daigaku, for a provincial college. An ekiben is a lunch served at a station. Ekiben daigaku sprung up along railway lines where the express trains stopped. With the low birthrate in Japan, some of these tertiary institutions are bound to go off the rails and disappear.
A lot of catchphrases have come into the language from the world of advertising. These become for us a window on the society of the time. In the ’60s, S & B Foods flogged their new “authentic” curry with the slogan, Indojin mo bikkuri, or “even Indians will be astonished.” I’m sure, too, that most Indians were astonished by the gooey, sweet variety of their national dish. Morinaga came up with a dazzler to market one of their chocolates: Okii koto wa ii koto, in short, “Size matters,” even for things that melt in your mouth.
The toilet-maker Toto came up with a prize beauty for its new Washlet toilets: oshiri datte aratte hoshii. “Even your bottom deserves a wash.” Well, that would, I guess, be a kind of shitayaku, or unpolished translation.
A very popular ad campaign was launched a few years ago by financial services company Aiful, with the phrase do suru? Aiful! Literally this means “What are you going to do? Aiful!” Now, however, this catchphrase could be turned on the company itself, which was last year involved in a false advertising campaign. That campaign’s hero, a cute little Chihuahua named Koochan has, like a lot of Aiful’s borrowers, found itself “in the doghouse (menboku o ushinatteiru).”
Two buzzwords of the ’90s are batsuichi and narita rikon (Narita [Airport] divorce). The first means “one down,” or, more properly, “divorced (one time).” The second describes the phenomenon where one of the newlyweds, generally the bride, disappears at Narita Airport — or any other airport for that matter — just before boarding the plane or after coming back from the honeymoon.
Today, two of the most commonly used buzzwords, or, more precisely, buzz prefixes, are cho- and mecha-. Both of these emphasize the succeeding adjective, as in cho-kimochi ii (feels like heaven) and mecha-umai (absolutely delicious, brilliant-tasting).
One of many catchphrases that has turned into a proverb is tada yori takai mono wa nai. Literally this translates as “Nothing is more expensive than something that’s free.” In other words, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
An example of a catchphrase that turned into a cliche centers around the use of the ordinary Japanese expression na wake (that’s why). Written in katakana wake is seen as “cool,” and that’s why it often appears in film titles, like dakara kare ga suki na wake (that’s why I fell for him). It doesn’t sound like much of a buzzword, but then many buzzwords have become an integral part of the vocabulary, so they lose a few decibels of buzz.
Some catchphrases are cliches, others are proverbs. Perhaps a catchphrase is a popular expression in its early phase, on the way to becoming a cliche or a proverb. Some make it, some don’t. But they all provide genuine insight into the process and psychology of language formation.