If you’re learning Japanese, you’ve probably learned some everyday vocabulary for household objects; words for things like chairs, tables, and pencils.
But when you get to the word for “stapler,” you might be thrown a bit. It’s ホチキス (hochikisu), which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the surface.
The word’s written in the Japanese katakana alphabet, which implies it’s a foreign word. But what other language on earth calls a stapler a “hochikisu?”
The only other language in the world that calls a stapler that is Korean, where it’s called 호치키스, or hochikiseu. But it turns out Korea got the word from Japan in the first place. So what’s the story?
Sometimes foreign words sneak into languages without being noticed. Probably very few English speakers realize that words “karaoke” or phrases like “head hancho” originally come from Japanese.
Likewise, hochikisu kind of just snuck into the Japanese language without anybody noticing. I doubt that many Japanese people would be able to tell you exactly why staplers are called hochikisu.
Turns out that the answer is pretty damn complicated, and involves an American arms dealer, luxury cars, and an impressive family tree.
Staplers and Machine Guns
It all started in the 1800s, when an American by the name of Benjamin B. Hotchkiss decided to get into the arms business. Unfortunately for Hotchkiss, on the heels of the bloody American Civil War, the US wasn’t super interested in buying more guns.
So Hotchkiss packed up and moved over to France, where he founded Société Anonyme des Anciens Etablissements Hotchkiss et Cie, where he produced weaponry, including machine guns most famously used in WWI. Later on, the company made cars too to cover up the fact that they were merchants of death.
This is where a lot of people get confused. They think that somehow hochikisu is named after this arms dealer Benjamin Hotchkiss. While it’s true that in most of the rest of the word Benjamin, with his machine guns and cars, is the most famous Hotchkiss, not so in Japan.
I Believe You Have My Stapler
Years after Benjamin died, his relative, Eli H. Hotchkiss founded an office supply company that specialized in new-fangled “paper fasteners.” His business wasn’t quite as exciting as his uncle’s but, as it turns out, he may have had a larger impact than his relative.
His staplers got shipped over to Japan, where nothing like them had seen before. Not having an existing word for the stapler, the Japanese just called staplers by their company’s name, Hotchkiss. Hence ホチキス (hochikisu) was born.
The Hotchkiss company is now long gone, but the Japanese still call staplers hochikisu. It’s an interesting side note to anybody learning the language that teaches you a bit of history, and goes to show that even a culture as seemingly homoegnous as Japan’s has a few outside influences.
Read more: The Strange Tale of the Hotchkiss
Header photo by drakegoodman