In this week’s lesson, we’re going to examine eight Japanese-English false friends. False friends in Japanese are a bit different than false friends in other languages. False friends between English and other European languages are usually a result of a shared origin. An archaic word in an earlier language was adopted by more than one modern language. The resulting words diverged in meaning as the languages evolved.
Japanese-English false friends, on the other hand, are almost entirely the result of how the Japanese language assimilates foreign words. A word with no native Japanese equivalent is adapted into a form that Japanese speakers can write and pronounce via the Katakana alphabet. These “loanwords,” in turn, can take on different meanings and connotations than the words from which they were borrowed. Because Japanese has many English loanwords, native English speakers need to be especially careful that they don’t fall for Japanese-English false friends.
In its incorporation into the Japanese language, “about” has taken on an additional, negative level of nuance. Instead of simply meaning “approximately,” アバウト implies vagueness, laziness, or sloppiness. In other words, it suggests that a person is either unable or unwilling to do a more precise job.
コーヒー means “coffee” in Japanese. While the word is not actually of English origin (it comes from Dutch), it is close enough that most English speakers will be able to recognize it. アメリカン is, naturally, “American.” However, when paired together, these loanwords take on a slightly pejorative meaning: “weak coffee.” There isn’t a consensus on where or how this meaning originated, but everyone can agree that you shouldn’t ask for an “American coffee” in Japan unless you want your coffee to be watered down.
クレームク / レーマー
kureemu / kureemaa
These loanwords come from “claim” and “claimer,” respectively. In Japanese, these words take on the meaning of a complaint or a claimant in the context of a customer complaint, a civil or legal action, and so forth.
Adapted from the English phrase “don’t mind,” this loanword is closer in meaning to “never mind.” It can’t be used in the sense of “don’t mind me” or “do you mind if I eat the last piece of cake?”
While “cunning” might be a complement in English, カンニング is something that you definitely do not want to be accused of. This is because the loanword specifically refers to cheating on an exam. In other words, being cunning in a nefarious way.
Borrowed from the English “mansion,” マンション usually refers to a high rise apartment or condominium. The Japanese loanword for apartment, アパート (apaato), normally refers to only low-rise, wooden blocks of flats.
An adaptation of the English word “part,” パート refers to the part-time job of an adult who is not in school. The Japanese アルバイト (arubaito), in contrast, comes from “arbeit,” the German word for “job.” アルバイト refers to the kind of part-time job that a student takes for extra income while in school. For this reason, アルバイト is sometimes translated as “side-job.”
Sometimes a loanword’s scope can be broader than that of its donor word. トランプ is a good example of this. While the word refers to playing cards in general, it has its origins in a specific type of card: the “trump” card.
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