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Issue 86   

May 15, 2000
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Japanese words in English

Reader Andrew Nau wrote to us recently complaining that he couldn't find sushi in his dictionary.  He went on to mention that hobo comes from the Japanese word houbou "to wander about" and finished by asking where he could find a list of Japanese words in English.   Well, we don't know a single definitive source for such words but here are a few words which have occurred to us.

A platter of sushi -- would we see that in Japan?  Click to follow the link, but it has nothing to do with sushi as we know it.You'll have to get a better dictionary, Andrew, most of ours have entries for sushi.  The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) explains that it is "A Japanese dish consisting of small balls of cold boiled rice flavored with vinegar and commonly garnished with slices of fish or cooked egg, or rolled in a piece of laver".  Not the most appetizing of descriptions, we must admit, but it does get to the essence of the dish.  Sushi actually means "vinegar-cured rice" - the raw fish is just a bonus.   The word has been in English since at least 1893 when a traveler recorded that he was "served... with tea and sushi or rice sandwiches".  The raw fish, when served by itself, is called sashimi which means "pierced flesh" (sashi "pierce" + mi "flesh").  

Other Japanese food which has entered our diet (especially here on the Pacific rim) are teriyaki, yakitori, tofu and tempura.  Teriyaki is a rich, glossy sauce which imparts a sheen to the meat and its name means "shiny roast" (teri "gloss, lustre" + yaki "roast").  Pieces of chicken or other fowl which are roasted on skewers are called yakitori, literally "roast bird" (yaki "toasting, grilling" + tori "bird"). 

Although the Japanese language is not related to Chinese, much of its vocabulary is borrowed from China.  Tofu is the Japanese way of pronouncing the Chinese du fu which, surprisingly, means "rotten beans" (du "beans" + fu "rotten").  

[Mike says this is not at all surprising - he always knew it was a rotten substitute for food.  He is now declaring that henceforth he will refer to tofu as "rotten beans"]

All right, if that wasn't surprising enough, how about tempura?  This dish of seafood or vegetables, coated in batter and deep-fried is archetypically Japanese, wouldn't you say?  Well, the word tempura is actually from Portuguese tempro "seasoning" and, ultimately, comes from temperare "to divide or proportion duly, to mingle in due proportion, to combine properly".   Thus the Japanese word tempura has English relatives in temperature, temperance and tamper. 

By the way, if you were wondering about the laver in which the sushi was wrapped, it's English for nori, a black (actually extremely dark green) seaweed.  The name comes from Latin laver, the name of an edible seaweed mentioned by Pliny but it's not certain exactly what he meant.  Laver, also known as "sea lettuce", is eaten in Wales, too.  One traditional delicacy called bara laver ("laver bread") is made from a pure of laver which is mixed with a little oatmeal and fried.  Another old recipe calls for "hot laver sauce" to be served with roast mutton.  (Mike says this is especially good with the lamb from the salt-grass meadows of the South Wales coast.)

Another way in which Japanese culture has affected our own is in the practice of martial arts.  We know about judo, ju-jitsu, karate and maybe even aikido and kendoJudo, difficult as this may be to believe, means "the way of gentleness" (from  Chinese jou "soft, gentle" + tao "way").  The older name for it was ju-jitsu which means "the art of gentleness" where jutsu is a Japanese attempt to pronounce the Chinese shut "art, science".  Aikido is a "way of transforming energy", from ai "together" + ki "spirit" (Chinese ch'i "energy") + do (Chinese tao "way").  Karate, logically, means "empty hand" just as kara-oke means "empty song".  

A three line verse of seventeen syllables - five in the first line, seven in the second and five in the last - is called  a haiku.  Now considered high art, haiku were originally light and comical and were written as verses of longer poems.  The name is a contraction of haikai no renga "jesting linked-verse".  

A tsunami is another name for a tidal wave.  These immense waves are not caused by the tides but byThe Whirlpool, by Hiroshige seismic disturbances below the ocean floor.  The Japanese word means "harbor wave" from tsu "harbor" + nami "wave", presumably from the cataclysmic effect that it can have on ships anchored "safely" in habor.

Ever since "The Yakusa", a Hollywood movie starring Robert Mitchum, we have been aware that Japan has its own, homegrown Mafia.  The name yakusa actually means "eight-nine-three" ( ya "eight" + ku "nine" + za or sa "three").  While this might seem a very peculiar name to us, its meaning is obvious to Japanese.  It is the very worst hand in a popular Japanese card game.  So, by analogy, "worthless card-hand" means "worthless person".

At the other extreme of Japanese culture, zen is a school of Buddhism which emphasizes meditation, awareness and simplicity.  It is not originally a Japanese word, however, and was borrowed from the Chinese word ch'an which, in turn was the Chinese form of the Sanskrit word dhyana ("meditation").  The indigenous religion of Japan, shinto, does not have an indigenous Japanese name.  It comes from Chinese, too.  Shin tao is "the way of the gods".

American G.I.s were in Japan after the end of World War II and during the Korean War.  That was where they picked up the word honcho which is Japanese (hancho) for "group leader".  We all know that a tycoon is a rich person, usually some "captain of industry" but, originally, this was the title by which the shogun of Japan was described to foreigners.  It means "great lord or prince" and, again, comes from Chinese (ta "great" + kiun "prince").  The title shogun, used by a series of military dictators, is short for sei-i-tai shogun, "barbarian-subduing great general" and is the Japanese pronunciation of Chinese chiang chiin (chiang "to lead" + chiin "army").

It is just possible, but unlikely, that hobo comes from Japanese, but it has been an English word since at least 1889 and relations with Japan were very tenuous in those days.  Unlike honcho, there were no regiments of  soldiers to bring hobo back home and, even if someone did introduce the word from Japanese, why that, of all words?  Then again, why was this Japanese verb transferred to American English as a noun?  It is easy to invent fanciful etymologies for words but, in the absence of detailed historical evidence, we just have to say "we don't know".

By the way, Funk defines hobo as "an idle shiftless wandering workman, ranking scarcely above the tramp".  We imagine that there are many, hard-working hobos who would bridle at this description.  As we understand it, a hobo is "an itinerant laborer", a tramp is "an itinerant non-laborer" and a bum is "a non-itinerant non-laborer".

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Emma:

Where does the word Aryan come from?

The word Aryan has a fascinating history. Today's spelling arose in about 1847.  Prior to that it wasAncient Persia.  Click to learn more. Arian "concerning the worshippers of the gods of the Brahmans" as a national group. The word was also used to refer to the languages of Iran, Afghanistan and northern India. This term came from Latin Arianus "of Ariana" and Greek Areia "the eastern part of ancient Persia." These came from Sanskrit Arya- or Aria- "noble", and it was how the Sanskrit-speaking immigrants to India referred to themselves. The ancient Persians had the same name, Old Persian Ariya- and this is the origin of Iran, the modern and ancient name for Persia. The term Indo-European has replaced Aryan when referring to the group of related languages which includes the Indo-European languages.

Sanskrit rya meant "honorable, respectable", and originally, "belonging to the hospitable". It comes from ary "lord, hospitable lord", and, originally, "protecting the stranger", from ar "stranger."

There was an early Christian sect called the Arians who were so-called because they followed a teacher called Arius (perhaps he was Persian).  Arius traveled the ancient world singing about Jesus.  His songs were immensely popular and at one point more than half of Christendom was Arian.  Eventually, though, Arianism was declared heretical as, among other heterodox beliefs, it maintained that Jesus was half God and half man.  Since 325 A.D. the official dogma has been that Christ was entirely God AND entirely man. The Arian version does seem more logically defensible.

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Dean Jens:

In the last issue, you seem to have stopped halfway; if noodle originally meant head, how did it come to refer to food?

Well, we talked about noodle meaning "head" a couple of weeks ago, so this week we're going to tell you how noodle meaning "pasta" came about.  It derives from German nudel and entered English in the 18th century.  Other than that, little is known, though there is always conjecture.  Epicurean etymologist Mark Morton thinks that German knoedel and Yiddish knaidel are also related, suggesting an origin in German knode "knot" and a root in Indo-European "gen-" "to compress into a ball".  That would make relatives of such other words as knuckle, knoll, knit, and knead.

From Carol Cool:

I copy edit for an ad agency that has a large group of health care clients. Now that it is "report" time, I'm seeing the word benchmark used often and, as a littler diversion before my eyes glaze over, I was just wondering about its origin.

A benchmark is, strictly speaking, a surveyor's mark cut into a rock, a wall, or a fence to indicate a point in a line of levels for the determination of altitudes over an area. (Whew!) An instrument used by surveyors, the angle-iron, is inserted into the benchmark to form a temporary bracket or bench for supporting the leveling staff.  Because of the importance of the benchmark itself, the term soon came to be applied figuratively to any point of reference.  The surveying term is first recorded in 1842, and the figurative use arose by 1884.

Find the origin of these and other words in our bookstore.

From Adrienne DeArmas:  UPDATED JANUARY 2006

I'm not quite satisfied with doozy being a variation on daisy, and if it is a derivative of Eleanor Duse's name, then I'd like a contextual usage as a reference.  I don't want much, do I?

A 1936 Duesenberg.  Click to visit the Deusenberg Motors site.What is undisputed about the word is that it is American in origin and it arose this century.  Most sources simply claim that its origin is unknown and then throw out a few possible explanations.  The word may simply have been invented, or it might derive from Duesenberg, an extravagent, pre-World War II automobile.  One problem with the latter explanation is that an earlier version of the word, dozy, apparently existed before the Duesenberg hit the market in 1920.  Most etymologists agree that it is a corrupted form of the slang term daisy, which meant "excellent" starting in the 18th century.  They also believe that this sense of daisy was influenced by the name of a popular Italian actress of the late 19th century, Eleonora Duse.  Daisy and Duse (pronounced doo-zee) combined to form doozy.

From Bob Coleman:

As I was driving home yesterday, I heard that old song that contains the phrase, "Yester-you, yester-me, yester-day", which made me wonder where yesterday comes from.

In Old English it was gystran daeg, or one of several slight variations thereof.  Daeg is, of course, "day".  So what's gystran?  It is a word that means, etymologically, "a day preceding or following the present day."  If we spoke a Germanic language other than English (or Gothic!), we would say simply the equivalent of yester when we meant "yesterday".  Therefore, yesterday is technically "yesterday day".  Interestingly,  the yester root also meant "tomorrow", so yesterday could also mean, etymologically, "tomorrow day"!  Some of the non-Germanic Indo-European languages also use only the equivalent of yester to mean "yesterday".  In Sanskrit it is hyas, in Latin heri, and in Greek chthes.  The Indo-European root is ghjes- "yesterday".  Yes, apparently yesterdays and tomorrows have been recognized by man for a very, very long time, hence the appearance of similar words for yesterday in so many languages.

Note that both the Gs of gystran daeg have turned into Ys in Modern English.  The consonants G and Y are frequently interchangeable, as in the common "-town" suffixes -burg and -bury. 

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon R. Errickson shares some Badgrammarlands humor

Good morning! Just got my weekly dose of your great site. I have a great example of misuse for you - I recently got a flyer from my life insurance company notifying me that they have "redomesticated from South Dakota to Iowa."  I hadn't realized that my insurance company had become feral, but I guess that strange things can happen in the Badlands.

Come to think of it, we imagine that most insurance companies are feral.  Thanks for that gem. 

Sez You...

From Ian Rowlands:

Showing off my new-found knowledge gleaned from your wonderful Issue 84 last week, I had a brief conversation regarding our phthirophagous politicians and their habit of treating our national treasury as if they had all been bdellatomised. Thank you once again for enlightening me about yet another long held belief; that cobblers was the name given to the froth that bubbled from the first carbonated drinks which was useless and shortly came to mean "rubbish".

From Georg Trimborn:

As always, I love your site! I really appreciate the time you put into this; it certainly brightens my week when I get to read it.  But... I have to disagree on your modern definition of ale [in last week's issue].  You say that it's a term for paler beers made with unroasted malt, but that's not the way I understand it. For starters, both porter and stout are ales, so the pale description is totally wrong! (The opposite is also false - that there are no dark lagers; there's plenty of nice dark bocks to be had.)

Ale refers to beer which is fermented with yeasts that thrive a) at the top of the kettle used for brewing, as opposed to the bottom, which is the case with lager yeasts (ales are 'top-fermenting' beers), and b) at warmer temperatures than lager yeasts. Since lagers really only became possible (well, for long-term storage and consumption) with the advent of refrigeration, the German term for ale is alt - referring to the 'old' style of beer-making. Is this where the term 'ale' comes from? I don't think you said in your write-up.  

Thanks again - all this is making me thirsty; what a pity it's only 8:45 am...

All we can say in reply is to quote the OED: "Ale and beer seem originally to have been synonymous... at present ‘beer’ is in the trade the generic name for all malt liquors, ale being specifically applied to the paler coloured kinds, the malt for which has not been roasted or burnt; but the popular application of the two words varies in different localities." [Emphasis added]

We didn't say where ale comes from but there are cognates in many Teutonic languages.  Old English had alu, Old Saxon had alo and the Old Norse was l.  Even in Viking days some distinction was made between beer and ale as the Alvisml says "l heitir me mnnum, en me sum bjrr" - "it is called ale among men, and among the gods beer".

From Chandra McCann:

I am in complete agreement with Martha Saylor [in last week's issue] - the misplaced apostrophe is the scourge of modern English.  I work in a store where people have their family names inscribed on various household items.  I struggle constantly to convince them that The Smith's actually means "belonging to The Smith", and unless their house is owned by a metalworker, it should be The Smiths (plural) or The Smiths' (plural possessive).  This apostrophic error is so prevalent that it has reached the point where our embroidery department has called us to inform us that we should stop suggesting The Smiths' to people because it is grammatically incorrect!

I came across a true gem just the other day - an order for a Ms. Charles who wanted The Charle's embroidered on a blanket.

From Kent Johnson:

Georges Surdez is pretty obscure these days, but in his time he was quite prolific and quite well-known. He wrote numerous Foreign Legion stories in the 20s and 30s for Colliers, Argosy, Adventure (over 100 stories here alone), Short Stories and other magazines.  In the 40s, due to the war, he seems to have switched to writing French Resistance stories (such as "Restricted," which you mention).  Not much of his work has been collected in book form - of his Foreign Legion stories in book form I know only of Swords of the Soudan, L. Harper Allen, 1928 and The Demon Caravan, a Dell Mapback, 1951. Surdez is  well-known among pulp magazine collectors however and you can at any time find magazines with his work on sale at eBay

Thank you. Kent.  In case anyone is wondering what this is all about, we cited Surdez as a source of the phrase Russian roulette.

[Mike is now suggesting a sequel to S-words of the Soudan called F-words of the British Isles.  Melanie says "Sacr nom d'un pipe!"]

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