Words and phrases in katakana may appear to be easily recognizable to non-native speakers of Japanese, but they are often fiendishly difficult. This generally comes as a surprise to Japanese, who naturally assume that we can understand katakana words readily, seeing as many of them originated in foreign languages.
It took me years before I could pronounce my own name in Japanese: Parubasu. In the next life, I am going to be born without a p, l, v and r in my name. I’ll take a simple name such as Oak, so everybody can call me Oku-san and refer to my wife as Oku-san no okusan.
Just because words are borrowed does not mean they necessarily have the same meaning. Direct borrowings are called “cognates”; and when the meaning differs, we refer to them as faux amis, French for “false friends.”
Sumato is one of these false friends. It does not mean “smart” in its most common usage. It means “slim.” Jinkusu may come from the English “jinx,” but in Japanese jinkusu can represent something fortuitous. In English there is no such thing as a “good jinx.”
Hippu is not your hip, from which the word came, but your waist or backside.
Then there is the elusive bajin. Not that virgins are elusive these days, though this topic is somewhat beyond the scope of this article. The fact is that both males and females can be virgins in English, while in Japanese only a female can be a bajin. Go figure.
This makes that cute katakana phrase bajinrodo all the more explicable. Taking the “virgin road” is the equivalent of “walking down the aisle,” presumably for the first time.
There are other pitfalls in katakana. A glass that you drink out of is a gurasu, but the glass in a window is garasu. If you forget which is which when ordering a drink, ask for a koppu, which is a false friend that does not mean “cup,” but rather “glass.”
Katakana was the perfect medium at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to accommodate the slew of words that entered the Japanese language from overseas. After about 250 years of isolation, the Japanese language had a lot of catching up to do. Chinese renders these words solely with kanji; Japanese has the flexibility of katakana, something that I believe was a factor in the modernization of this country.
Thousands of technical terms were used in katakana, many from English, German and other European languages. These were much more accessible as katakana than they would have been as long, complex kanji compounds.
Some words changed form a bit. One’s signature is sain (sign) in Japanese. In English, we don’t use “sign” as a noun, only as a verb. Skiing is suki . Suki ga suki is “I like skiing.”
A few katakana words, however, have gone the other way. It is very common in English-speaking countries to call your convertible heater/cooler an “air con.” This phrase has entered English rather recently, and it is apparently from eakon, originally an abbreviation of air conditioner. This is a neat example of the toing and froing that words do. I wish English would adopt rimokon for “remote control device,” which is called “the thingo” in my house.
Sometimes a foreign katakana word or phrase enters Japanese to replace a perfectly good native equivalent. This makes something appear more attractive and trendy than it normally would.
When I first arrived to live in Japan in 1967, wine was generally called budoshu. This word is now obsolete, and wain is used. If you go into your local spectacles shop and ask for iromegane or hiyokemegane, make sure the shop assistant is a minimum of 102 years old. Otherwise, use the modern katakana word for sunglasses, sangurasu.
Some words never made it. The Japanese rejected besuboru for yakyu (baseball) but adopted futtoboru for football. Going the whole nine yards, they coined amefuto, for American football, to distinguish it from the variety played by everybody else in the world.
Expecting Americans to adopt the term amefuto for grid iron is a bit oba, which comes from “over” and means “beyond the pale.” But there is no doubt that borrowings have enriched all languages immensely. Thank goodness the proverb “Never a lender or a borrower be” doesn’t apply to language.
For ama (amateur) and puro (pro), it’s a fascinating exchange.