Loanwords are Japanese words that have been “borrowed” from other languages, usually English. Most loanwords are simply transliterations of their donor words. For example, コーヒー (kōhī) is the loanword for “coffee.” However, not all loanwords are so straightforward. Sometimes a loanword develops a different meaning or usage than its donor word. In other situations, the accepted loanword for a concept is completely different from the existing word(s) for that same concept in the donor language. For this lesson, we’re going to unpack the meanings behind several commonly-used Japanese-English loanwords that, nevertheless, require a bit of explaining.
アイスクリーム (aisukurīmu) – ice cream
Some sounds in English simply don’t exist in Japanese. Many loanwords, including “aisukurīmu,” have to make do with the closest equivalent Japanese sounds. This often results in “extra” vowels that don’t exist in the original words.
バーゲン (bāgen) – bargain
The loanword “bāgen” is used to refer to a sale or other promotional discount in a store. Its meaning is a bit narrower than the English word “bargain,” which means that the price you paid for something was a good deal in general.
ビール(bīru) – beer
While “bīru” is not an English loanword, we’re including it because the word is a good example of a false cognate. The loanword actually comes from the Dutch “bier.” It’s resemblance to the English “beer” is entirely coincidental.
パソコン (pasokon) – personal computer
“Pasokon,” the Japanese loanword for a desktop computer, is a portmanteau of “personal computer.” Note that the Japanese term for a laptop or notebook computer, is ノートパソコン (nōtopasokon), literally “note computer.”
サラリーマン (sararīman) – salaryman
キャリアウーマン (kyariaūman) – career woman
オーエル (ōeru) – O.L. (office lady)
These loanwords are common terms for business professionals. “Salaryman” is the loanword for a salaried male white collar office worker. The equivalent term for a female salaried employee is “career woman.” This term should not be confused with “office lady,” which is used to describe female secretaries, receptionists, and other low-level clerical workers.
スーパー (sūpā) – supermarket
デパート(depaato) – department store
It’s not uncommon for an English word to be abridged during its transformation into a loanword. Two commonly-used examples are the loanwords “sūpā” and “depāto,” which cut off most of “supermarket” and “department store,” respectively.
ワイシャツ (waishatsu) – solid color dress shirt
“Waishatsu” is a perfect example of how a loanword can take on a different meaning than what its donor words literally mean. While “waishatsu” is borrowed from “white shirt,” it can refer to a dress shirt of any solid color.