I know Karate, judo…and several other Japanese words.

Loanwords, as the name suggests are words that have been transplanted from one language to another. Phrases such as déjà vu, je ne sais quoi, and joie de vivre are just a few examples of the hundreds of loanwords inherited from French. Due to the global nature of English and its regrettable use as a tool of colonialism, the English language is rife with loan words from all corners of the world. For example words like pundit, jungle, shampoo and thug are borrowed from Hindi. The word trek comes from Afrikaans, and pajamas comes from Persian. There are even quite a few words that originally come from Japanese that may come as a surprise to many English speakers.

Many uniquely Japanese cultural and culinary words are readily understood by English speakers, such as haiku, bonsai, kabuki, sushi, hibachi, judo, karate, sumo, and zen. A second wave of Japanese words were brought back by soldiers after World War Two, such as kamikaze, banzai and harakiri (often called harry carry by Americans). A third wave of Japanese loanwords have come into use recently with the popularity of Japanese pop-culture such as anime, manga, otaku, emoji, and hentai. But there are actually many words that English speakers use everyday that originated in Japan.

Futon (布団)
For most people in North America, this word conjures up images of a university dorm room, where friends crash when they are too drunk to get home. They are designed to serve as a sofa and a bed, although in most cases they perform quite poorly at both. This is pretty far removed from what it originally referred to, which is a bed roll that is placed on the floor each night before going to bed. Hey, at least they both are folding beds!

Head Honcho (班長)
This word was most likely introduced by soldiers returning from WWII. In Japan this word is rarely used outside of the context of the military, or groups with a highly structured chain of command. The word derives from 班”han” meaning squad or corps, and 長”chou” meaning leader. In English it has come to take on a much broader meaning as a general boss or leader, without the military implications.

Tycoon (大君)
When Japan opened its doors to the west in 1853, the Shogun, not the emperor, was still the ruling power for most of Japan. This was a hard concept for westerners to understand, especially because the title Shogun, which means general, is not all that impressive. The supporters of the shogun, instead referred to him as the “taikun” which combines the words 大”tai” meaning great or large, and 君 which means ruler or sovereign. If only they could have convinced the rest of the people in Japan that the shogun was better than the emperor – just 14 years later he was deposed and the emperor was restored. These days the word in English has taken on an entirely new meaning, that of a wealthy and powerful businessman. Although records of the word in the English lexicon date back to the time of President Lincoln, it didn’t take on the new meaning until post WWI.

This is an example of a double loanword, or a reborrowed word. The word kara (空) meaning empty, is the same that appears in the word karate (empty hand). The second part, “oke” comes from a bastardization of the word orchestra, so karaoke means “empty orchestra.” In this case English borrowed “oke” which originally came from orchestra, which itself is actually from the Greek orkhestra, via Latin. I am not sure what that is called, but this word gets around.

Hunky-Dori (本町通り)
This word is in fact most likely not from Japanese, but the idea is persistent enough to include it here. According to one theory, there was once a large thoroughfare through Yokohama, a major port city in Japan, called 本町通り “honcho dori” which basically means main street. When sailors would go out on the town and get too drunk to find their way home, they could relax as soon as they were “on honcho dori.” How the word evolved from “honcho” to “honky” is a mystery. There are much more credible etymologies of this word, which make more sense, but without as much of the flair.