”テンション” (tenshon), a tricky Japanese loanword

By | January 13, 2016

About two years ago, I wrote a post on a few confusing loanwords in Japanese, and then around a year ago about how they are so common in the language.

I’ve heard many new loanwords since writing those articles, and have been able to guess their general meaning often just from knowing the corresponding English word. But once in a while one comes up that is particularly difficult to grasp because it’s meaning has evolved  from English. Today I’d like to focus on the loanword “テンション”  (“tenshon”), which is a good example of this.

“テンション”, as you might have guessed, originally comes from the English word “tension”. In fact, when I checked this word’s meaning in a Japanese/English dictionary it simply said it meant “tense” or “tension”.

However, I’d heard this word several times, either said in a movie or to me directly, and the meaning didn’t seem to fit with the English concept of being “tense”.

Rather than used by itself as a noun, テンション is typically used with “高い” (“takai”, high) or “低い” (“hikui”, low). Let’s look at an example:

  • 今日、テンションが高いんだけど、どうしたの? (Kyou, tenshon ga takai n da kedo, doushita no?)

Using the concept of “tense” with “high”, you might guess this means there is a “high tension” situation, which carries a negative connotation.

However, this phrase is actually used to describe a sense of excitement with a more positive nuance. Here is a translation in English:

  • You seem pretty excited today. Whats going on?

Similarly, “テンションが低い” would mean there is a lack of excitement, or could even be used to refer to depression.

If you check out a Japanese/Japanese dictionary for this word, you’ll actually get a much better set of definitions. In addition to “緊張” (something like a state of tension), you’ll see ”気分や気持ち”  which are words that roughly refer to “feelings”.

It took me a bit of thought before I was able to link “テンションが高い” with “excitement”, but after I made the connection I did a quick search and found someone who had a similar experience to me and came to a similar conclusion. Some of the English translations on that page are a bit awkward (who says “full of beans” anymore?), but overall it has a good explanation of this word, and for moderate to advanced learners can be a good way to practice your reading skills.

Unsurprisingly, the Japanese have found a way to fit even more English into this phrase with the variant “ハイテンション” (hai tenshon), which means pretty much the same thing as “テンションが高い”.

 

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