Let’s enjoy new-look Nihongo


“I work at a big soft company. I was in office love with my boss. But I decided to make an image change of myself. Then I found a handsome guy who has a very nice open car. He said a charming girl must not be a high miss. I will goal in with him.”

While surfing the Web, I discovered the above “Story of an Office Lady” posted by a language enthusiast named “Runo” (www. zephyr.dti.ne.jp/~runo/awasei.html). I immediately set out to translate it into English. Here’s the result:

“I work at a large computer software company. I was having an affair with my boss but decided to turn over a new leaf. Then I found a handsome fellow who drives a nice convertible. He said a charming girl like me shouldn’t become an elderly spinster. We are going to get married.”

What you see in the first paragraph reflects the Japanese propensity to borrow extensively from English. These borrowings frequently mutate and take on lives of their own in the form of so-called wasei eigo — literally Japan-made English. Japanese speech is full of such pseudo-English expressions, with more entering the language all the time.

Because the automobile arrived as a foreign import and has been around for the best part of a century, Japanese have had plenty of time to produce their own terms related to cars and driving. A car’s akuseru is not the rod to which the wheels are connected, but its accelerator pedal. Cars are equipped with such components as a “back mirror” (rear-view mirror), “handle” (steering wheel), “wheel cover” (hubcaps), “winker” (turn signal) and “klaxon” (horn). A person who possesses a license but who seldom operates a vehicle is a “paper driver.” Then there is the “one man car,” i.e. a bus or other conveyance operated by the driver only, i.e. without a ticket taker or conductor.

When native English speakers encounter such expressions, confusion often results. While I was driving in Osaka many years ago, a policeman once stopped me and inquired about the light truck I was driving, “Is that my car?” Not realizing that he was asking if I was the owner, I responded, “What are you talking about? No, it’s not your car!” Expecting me to understand what he thought was English, he repeated the question in an aggravated tone of voice. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about!” I replied. He finally threw up his hands in frustration and waved me off.

Upon entry into the Japanese lexicon, it’s quite common for English terms to become detached from their original meanings. When a group gangs up on someone, they “lynch” him, even when their victim emerges alive. A “viking” is not a sword-wielding Scandinavian but a buffet or smorgasbord. “Cunning” refers to cheating on an examination. A man who says he works as a “cock” is not employed by a host club, but prepares food in a restaurant.

Other “English” terms are all but incomprehensible. Who is likely to recognize that “hotchkiss” means a stapler, “trump” a deck of playing cards or “consent” an electrical wall outlet?

Fortunately, most forms of wasei eigo manage to get their meanings across reasonably well, and a few even convey a sort of crude appeal. A peephole is referred to as a “door eye.” A dais or lectern is called a “speech table.” And males elect to undergo a “pipe cut” instead of a vasectomy. A blushing bride walks, not down an aisle, but along a “virgin road.” And by the way, weddings can be a good “shutter chance,” so you’d better grab your camera before the photo opportunity passes.

Herbert Passin, professor emeritus at Columbia University and an authority on Japanese language usage, sees the process of word adoption as going through six stages. Initially, 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 instantly understandable to speakers of the original language. (A manshon, for example, is used to mean a condominium — “register” becomes reji, “handicap” handi and so on.)

At the 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). 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 to the grammatical form of Japanese, as we find with words like saboru (to sabotage) or, more recently, getto suru (to obtain).

While assimilation of foreign words is common to most languages, Passin regards Japanese as being one of the most open.

“The process of English-absorption that is going on before our eyes in Japan today is awesomely inventive,” he marvels.

So there you have it: Study Japanese at my pace and you will be image up. And who knows? Starting first with live stage, you might even become a talent. My own ambition, for what it’s worth, is to judge a televised miss contest broadcast during golden time . . .