Today’s weird words are tomorrow’s standard speech

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Last month, a most peculiar word, dotakyan, popped up repeatedly in the media in reference to former Beatle Paul McCartney, who was forced to cancel his entire schedule of concerts due to health concerns.

Mainstream news organizations reported this as 全公演中止が決まった (zen kōen chūshi ga kimatta, it was decided to cancel all the performances). But many reports and blogs on the Internet used ドタキャン (dota-kyan), which the authoritative 広辞苑 (Kōjien) dictionary defines thusly: 「どた」は土壇場、「キャン」はキャンセルの略。直前になって約束を破棄する意の俗語 (“Dota” wa dotamba, “kyan” wa kyanseru no ryaku. Chokuzen ni natte yakusoku wo haki suru i no zokugo, abbreviations of dota for dotamba, and kyan for cancel: slang meaning to break a promise or appointment immediately beforehand.)

Originally a dotamba was a slanted platform of packed dirt in front of which was a shallow pit, where criminals were executed by decapitation until the early Meiji Period (1868-1912). Dotamba are no longer in use, but the word has survived in figurative usage to mean the eleventh hour or last minute. For instance, 土壇場で逃げる (dotamba de nigeru) would be to make a last-minute escape.

The source of dotakyan is uncertain, but the word became popularized from the early 1990s. One common use was in reference to the abrupt cancellation of a wedding, when the groom, or bride, got cold feet right before the ceremony — therefore inviting a humorous analogy to a last-minute stay of execution.

Although some Japanese no doubt despair the use of inelegant constructs such as dotakyan, they have wisely left the dissemination and use of new words to “market forces,” which is why the process by which neologisms enter the Japanese language is largely an arbitrary one.

Creators of new buzzwords might include advertising copywriters, essayists, TV personalities, 落語 (rakugo, comic monologue) and 漫才 (manzai, comic dialogue) performers, social commentators in various fields, and, of course, teenagers. The ubiquity of personal computers, mobile phones and the Internet has inspired a whole new vocabulary set, with words like メールアド (mēru-ado, email address) and ツイる (tsuiru, to tweet a message via Twitter).

In 1980, the late Herbert Passin, professor emeritus at Columbia University and an authority on Japanese language usage, compiled his various observations on the language in a book titled “Japanese and the Japanese.”

Passin wrote that the process of foreign word adoption into Japanese involves six stages. In the initial stage, foreign words, particularly technical terms and words without Japanese counterparts, are taken in whole and used passively.

In the second and third stages, the adoptions are used and abbreviated in ways that may not be immediately understandable to speakers of the original language. One good example would be 背広 (sebiro, a Western-style men’s suit). Written as ate-ji (falsely assigned kanji characters) meaning “back-wide,” sebiro is said by some to have originated from Saville Row, the London street famous for the bespoke men’s suits made by the tailors there. Another theory, however, suggests sebiro is a corruption of “civil clothes.”

By Passin’s fourth stage, foreign words are combined with Japanese words to make new compounds. Tonkatsu, a pork cutlet, is made from the Sino-Japanese ton (pig) and English cutlet (katsuretsu). Another example would be 生コン (namakon, unhardened, literally raw, concrete).

By the fifth stage, Japanese have little or no awareness that the word is not native. And at the sixth and final stage, the borrowing has been completely assimilated and can be incorporated grammatically into Japanese as a verb or other part of speech, as we find with words like サボる (saboru, from the French sabotage, but meaning to “play hooky” or slack from work).

When contestants on TV variety shows achieve the highest score and win a prize, announcers will use the term ゲットする (getto suru, to obtain) or simply ゲット (getto).

Some English words, thanks to their phonetic similarities to Japanese words, fit into the language with very little resistance. Take the Japanese word 色っぽい (iroppoi, sexy), which can be humorously tweaked to create エロっぽい (eroppoi, erotic) merely by substituting the initial “i” with an “e,” and retaining the same -ppoi adjectival ending. Another example would be ダブる (dabu-ru, a superfluous duplication, such as of a letter, word or image), which is adopted almost as-is from the English “double.” Because the ru ending corresponds to many Japanese verbs, daburu can be inflected to express the present progressive (dabu-tteru) or past tense (dabutta). I often hear it in publishing-related work, when an editor will tell me, 文字がダブってる (moji ga dabutteru, the letters are duplicated).

Passin, a brilliant scholar whose relationship with Japan spanned nearly 60 years before his death in 2003, regarded Japanese as being one of the world’s most receptive languages to assimilation of foreign words. He frequently marveled at the process of English-absorption going on before our eyes, which he once described to me as being “awesomely inventive.”