From anime to zen: Japanese words in the OED

From anime to zen: Japanese words in the OED

The long history of contact and mutual influence between Japanese and English has left an enduring legacy on the vocabulary of each language. In the case of English, Japan’s impact on the English lexicon can be observed in several hundred words of Japanese origin recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

A search feature of OED Online called Timelines, which enables a user to generate graphs that show the number of words first recorded by the OED within different time periods, lists 540 Japanese loanwords in English, dating from as early as the 16th century.


Timeline graph illustrating the patterns of borrowing into English from Japanese, from the 16th century to the present day.

It can be observed from the OED Timeline graph that the oldest Japanese borrowings recorded by the OED are bonze, a word for a Buddhist priest or religious teacher, and Kuge, the name of the nobility attached to the Imperial Court at Kyoto during feudal Japan. Both words are first attested in Richard Willes’ (Wylles) Of the Ilande Giapan, and other litle Iſles in the Eaſt Ocean, a section of The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies, a collection of travel writings co-edited by Willes with Richard Eden, published in London in 1577. This account of Japan is considered to be one of the earliest in the English language.


Evidence for the Japanese loanword bonze, from Richard Willes’ (Wylles) Of the Ilande Giapan, and other litle Iſles in the Eaſt Ocean, in The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies, a collection of travel writings co-edited by Willes with Richard Eden, published in 1577.

Japanese words continued to trickle slowly into English from then until the early 19th century. The now familiar words bento, katana, miso, mochi, sake, shogun, and tatami were all first used in English in the 1600s, and the still common words hiragana, koi, samurai, and tofu entered the language in the 1700s and early 1800s.

Then came the late 19th century and the trickle of Japanese loanwords became a steady stream. In the early 1850s, an expedition by the United States Navy led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry compelled Japanese ports to open to American trade, thus ending 250 years of sakoku, the isolationist policy enforced by the Tokugawa shogunate. With the Americans came their language, and by 1856, Japan’s Kaseishoo or Institute for Translation and Foreign Studies had adopted English as an official language, and in 1856, they published the first English-Japanese dictionary. Japanese merchants, shopkeepers, and entertainers suddenly found themselves with the need to communicate with English-speaking foreign sailors and businessmen, and this led to the development of a pidginized version of Japanese known as the ‘Yokohama dialect’, in reference to the seaport that became a new site for sustained Japanese-English language contact. It also resulted in greater interchange of words between the two languages, as represented by the late-19th-century peak in the OED Timelines graph. Indeed, some of the most widely used Japanese loanwords in English were first used in the late 1800s: bonsai, futon, geisha, haiku, matcha, mirin, nori, sashimi, sensei, shiitake, soba, sushi.

Borrowing from Japanese into English continues through the 1900s, reaching another peak in the latter part of the century with the emergence of Japan as a modern economic powerhouse and cultural trendsetter. Words that are ubiquitous in current English, such as dashi, dojo, ikebana, kombucha, maitake, origami, reiki, tempura, teriyaki, udon, wasabi, and yuzu, all made it into mainstream English usage in this later period.

Many Japanese borrowings in English are directly related to Japan, belonging to such semantic fields as Japanese food (e.g., edamame, gyoza, panko, ramen, surimi, umami), Japanese sports (aikido, judo, jujitsu, karate, sumo), and Japanese arts and culture (kimono, manga, kabuki, raku). Others have a less transparent connection to their country of origin—many of us who speak English may not even realize that when we talk about head honchos or business tycoons, or of a strong tsunami or a zen attitude, we are actually using words loaned to us by the Japanese.

However, it is not just through the direct borrowing of Japanese words that Japan makes its presence felt in English. Some words in the OED that are composed largely or entirely of English elements are modelled after their Japanese counterparts. The word hand roll, for instance, is constructed after the Japanese word temaki, short for temakizushi ‘hand-rolled sushi’, which itself combines the word te ‘hand’ with –maki, the combining stem of maku ‘to roll up’, and –zushi, the combining form of sushi. Breakfall is a term in judo for a movement that diminishes the impact of a fall. And just as the Betamax, Walkman, camcorder, Game Boy, and Pac-Man are made in Japan, so are their names. To date, the OED includes over 900 entries connected to Japan in some way, including the over 500 borrowings indicated in the Timeline.

It is important to note that lexical influence between Japanese and English is mutual, as the modern Japanese language itself is replete with Anglicisms. As a global lingua franca, English is a source of loanwords for many of the world’s languages, but what is remarkable about its lexical relationship with Japanese is that English seems to be quite eager to borrow back the words it lends to Japanese, usually after Japanese has done something interesting to them. This has resulted in a number of Japanese-English reborrowings or boomerang words—words that were borrowed from English into Japanese, and then borrowed back into English in a modified form and/or sense. For example, according to the OED, the compound salaryman has been used in English from as far back as 1719, but it experienced a revival in usage in the late 20th century when English reborrowed sarariman, a word that Japanese borrowed from English during the first half of the century. The English word anime comes from the Japanese word, which is shortened from animēshon, which itself comes from the English word animation. Cosplay, which combines cos- in costume with the noun play, is modelled after the Japanese word kosupure, which is shortened from kosuchūmu-purē, a word referring to a period theatrical piece, which itself comes from the English compound costume play.

The influx of words shows no sign of abating well into the 21st century, with the youngest Japanese loanword in the OED, amigurumi (the Japanese craft of creating small, crocheted or knitted, stuffed figures resembling animals or other creatures) being attested earliest in 2006. Words of Japanese origin are now an integral part of English vocabulary, and we are reminded of this every time we play Sudoku, sing karaoke, adjust the bokeh on our cameras, gush over all things kawaii, and express our emotions through emoji.


Further reading and watching:

Explore OED Timelines

Visit the OED landing page in Japanese

Watch a recording of the OED’s recent webinar for Japanese users

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

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