Japan uses a lot of loan words from different languages, but you probably already knew that. The nice thing about these words is you can usually tell what they mean. For example, セーター (se-ta-) is “Sweater.” They kind of sound similar. Also, アメリカ (amerika) is “America.” I bet you could figure that out if you heard it. But, there are many English words that have been adopted by the Japanese language that got muddled up somewhere along the way. They don’t quite make sense (or don’t make sense at all), so if you heard them for the first time you’d think the person was talking about something else.
These are some of my favorites / the ones that are off by the most. Which ones surprised you?
1. Smart (スマート)
Oh, I know that one, I’m “smart.” WRONG. In Japanese, the word “smart” means “physically slender.” Here you thought that people were finally getting to know you for who you are on the inside. They’ve finally come to appreciate the genius inside your brain. Well, guess again smarty pants (whole new meaning now, right?). You’re just slender, which I suppose isn’t a bad problem to have.
Japanese: Slender, Slim, Stylish
2. Pants (パンツ)
I think this is a British English thing (you crazy Brits!), but in American English when you talk about pants you’re talking about the thing that goes on the outside of your pantsu. “Pants” in Japanese means underwear, especially panties. So, when you ask someone what kind of pants they’re wearing… well… you better know what you’re asking.
Japanese: Underwear, Panties
3. Ice (アイス)
This one kind of makes sense. At least they’re both cold, and at least they both start with the word “ice.” In Japanese, the word “ice” refers to “ice cream,” so if you’re looking for some delicious ice cream you’ll want to ask for ice. If you want ice-ice you’ll want to ask for こおり (koori).
Japanese: Ice Cream
4. Cunning (カンニング)
In English the word cunning refers to someone who is cunning. This is someone who is marked by or given to artful subtlety and deceptiveness. Now, I suppose that someone who is known to be “cunning” may also dabble in cheating, but in Japanese the word “cunning” refers to cheating. If you’re a cheater, you are cunning. A cunning plan? I have one.
5. Service (サービス)
When you think of the word “service” you think of the thing that waiters try to give you when you’re at a restaurant. “The service here is terrible, no tip for you!” But, in Japanese a “service” is when you get something for free. For example, the chocolates aren’t usually free but today, for you, because I like your face… they’re service (aka you get them for free, you good looking frood you).
Japanese: Free, Freebie
6. Snack (スナック)
Mmm, delicious Bugles. They are a type of snack. But, in Japanese when you talk about “snack” you’re talking about a social bar where people go and hang out and hit on each other. Sure, you probably get some tasty snacks while you’re there, but probably not the Bugle-craving solution you were hoping for.
Japanese: Social Bar
7. Viking (バイキング)
By Odin’s Raven! Vikings in Japan? Well, it’s not what you think. A “Viking” in Japanese is an all you can eat buffet. I thought it was called this because vikings eat all they want, but it turns out the story behind this word is a little bit longer than just that. So, if your friend asks you if you want to go to a viking, don’t run to go get your horned helmet. You’re going to an all you can eat buffet.
Japanese: All You Can Eat Buffet
8. Naive (ナイーブ)
If you call someone “naive” in an English speaking country, they probably won’t be super happy with you. In Japan, however, it’s a compliment. If you call someone “naive” in Japan, it means they’re delicate, sensitive, and gentle. That’s why there’s a whole line of products called “Naive” in Japan. They make your hair, face, etc., nice and naive.
Japanese: Soft, Gentle, Delicate, Sensitive
9. Mansion (マンション)
Oh man, what I would give to live in a mansion! Wait, what’s this apartment? I thought I was just getting an awesome deal! Oh no… In Japan, a “mansion” is an apartment. Certainly not “mansion” level, at least how English speakers think of it. You’ll see ads everywhere for mansions for rent. Now you know you’re not getting one of Nick Cage’s old houses. Just makes me want to take someone’s face… off.
Also Worth Mentioning…
There are many other words just like this, but the above list includes my favorites. Let’s list off some other ones that I didn’t mention already. You’ll see that they tend to be a little less out there in terms of where it got lost in translation.
English: Machine (ミシン)
Japanese: Sewing Machine
English: Stove (ストーブ)
English: Cooler (クーラー)
Japanese: Air Conditioner
English: Home (ホーム)
Japanese: Train Platform
English: Juice (ジュース)
Japanese: Soft Drink, Juice
English: Renewal (リニューアル)
Japanese: Renovation, Update
English: Desk (デスク)
Japanese: Person in Office
English: Mentality (メンタリティー)
And, I’m sure there are plenty of others as well that I couldn’t think of or find. I suppose that’s just the price of any language. When you start mixing and matching, pieces go missing and show up somewhere else. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always entertaining to see.
Which of these did you think was the most interesting? Any of these trip you up personally? Naive took me a while to figure out.