Tricky Japanese loanwords

By | January 23, 2014

Loanwords, or those borrowed from another language (外来語), are used very frequently in Japanese. Those originating from English words are especially common, and this is a boon for all us studying this very challenging language. A majority of these can be understood with a glance, and are easy to remember as well. However there is a class of loanwords which are tricky, either because the certain sounds are pronounced differently or because syllables are dropped. Others sound close to their English counterparts, but their meaning can differ greatly or be used for only a subset of the English meanings.

Here are a few of those that I’ve heard or seen personally.

  • ガラス (garasu)
  • グルメ (gurume)
  • ホイール  (hoiiru)
  • スマホ  (sumaho)
  • ファイト  (faito)
  • セーター  (seetaa)
  • ネック  (nekku)
  • ドンマイ (donmai)
  • キャリア  (kyaria)
  • アバウト  (abauto)
  • シール  (shiiru)
  • プッシュ (pusshu)
  • アップ (appu)
  • ダウン (daun)
  • フォロー (foroo)
  • スマート (sumaato)

Explanations

  • ガラス (garasu)

This one derives from English “glass”, but it refers to the material. “グラス” is used to describe the container.

  • グルメ (gurume)

グルメ comes from “gourmet”, but isn’t usually used as an adjective to describe food. Rather it’s used to describe a person who is picky about food or is well-versed in various types of food or restaurants.

  • ホイール  (hoiiru)

This means ‘wheel’.

  • スマホ  (sumaho)

This one is a shortening of スマートフォン and means “smart phone”.

  • ファイト  (faito)

This one derives from the similar-sounding word “fight”, but is used to mean something like “good luck” (頑張って) rather than “fight” in a general sense.

  • セーター  (seetaa)

Sweater (clothing item).

  • ネック  (nekku)

This one derives from “neck”, but I’ve only heard it used as an abbreviation to mean “bottleneck”, as in the sense of something that obstructs.

  • ドンマイ (donmai)

Shortening of “don’t mind”, means “don’t worry about it” (心配するな)

  • キャリア  (kyaria)

When I first heard this I thought it was referring to “carrier”, but was later told it meant “career”.

  • アバウト  (abauto)

This derives from “about”, but I’ve heard it used for the specific meaning of “roughly” or “approximately”. I’ve also heard it used to mean “mediocre” or “half assed”.

  • シール  (shiiru)

This derives from “seal” (like a watertight seal), but I’ve only heard it used to mean “sticker”, like a children’s sticker that comes with a book.

  • プッシュ (pusshu)

This derives from “push” but I’ve only heard this used for “marketing push” or something that being given focus to.

  • アップ (appu)

As you guessed this one comes from “up” and can be seen in expressions like “level up”. However it can also mean “upload”, like to upload a file on the web. (Ex:  ファイルをアップした). By the way, “app” (as in application for a mobile device) is ”アプリ”

  • ダウン (daun)

Not surprisingly this derives from English “down”. I haven’t seen it used much to describe direction, instead it’s used for when a computer server is down (サーバーがダウンしてる), or when someone is unable to do much because they are sick (病気でダウンしてる).

  • フォロー (foroo)

Comes from “follow”. I’ve never seen this used in the sense of physically following (which would be ついていく or 追いかける), but I’ve heard it in the expression “フォローになってない” which is used when an expectation for support or help is not properly met. For example, imagine when you tell someone you are fat with the expectation they will say “no way!”, but they instead say “yeah, you have put on a few pounds”. フォローになってない would be a perfect phrase to use here. (I got this example from this post)

  • スマート (sumaato)

Though this sounds like “smart” it actually has a very different meaning to “intelligent”: a slender, stylish, and attractive body.

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5 thoughts on “Tricky Japanese loanwords

  1. FujikoToyohashi

    I find Katakana to be very hard to read sometimes, and it really helps to say the word really fast to get an idea what the original english word could have been. Although abbreviations like スマホ are easier to look up.

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment!

      For several years my reading speed of Katakana was much slower than than of Hiragana, and I had to really slow down whenever I hit a word I didn’t know. I’ve improved it some after forcing myself to read a lot, but I still read hiragana a bit faster.

      Reply
  2. narutovu207

    You have very clear explanation of all words. I just want to add that:
    – ドンマイ is also used to express sympathy towards other people’s mistake. Like on the tennis court I miss a point, they will say it.
    – キャリア I use the word at work to refer to carrier too. It’s a little bit confusing 😀

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks very much for the comment! It’s always good to get more information from different people about expressions to fully understand how they are used.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: ”テンション” (tenshon), a tricky Japanese loanword | Self Taught Japanese

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