Assari > ashali, a Japanese mimetic loanword in Taiwan

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I say "in Taiwan", because this word, 阿沙力, is both in Taiwan Mandarin, where it is pronounced āshālì, and in Taiwanese, where it is pronounced at3sa55lih3.

This is a very common expression in Taiwan, where it is used as the name of restaurants, for instant noodles, beverages, and other products, but most of all to describe someone's personality.

Nick Kaldis says that it is a behavior to which he aspires and wonders whether it is originally Japanese (more about that later).  He and his wife (from Hsinchu) are used to calling someone āshālì 阿沙力 in a very positive way, when their personality is assertive and also very much like this aSaLi stocking brand defines it:

"Āshālì" suǒ tīng qǐlái de gǎnjué zé shì xíngróng wéi rén chǔshì hǎo xiāngchǔ, háoshuǎng bùjū xiǎojié de táiwān rén xìnggé.


"The feeling that you get when you hear the word 'āshālì' describes a person who does things in such a way that it is easy to get along with them, is forthright and doesn't get hung up on trifles — the typical Taiwan personality.

Because it is so protean and ineffable, āshālì 阿沙力 is hard to define and all the harder to translate.

The first two comments below are characterizations of āshālì 阿沙力 by native Taiwanese.

Sophie Ling-chia Wei:

It is very commonly used in today's daily conversation to indicate that someone is very sharp and decisive. Originally it should be a transliteration/ transcription of the word "assertive" into Japanese*. Then it kept being used very frequently in Taiwanese with the pronunciation "assari." In modern society, in Taiwan Mandarin, it is transcribed with Chinese characters as āshālì 阿沙力 or āshālì 阿莎力 to indicate someone is gāncuì 乾脆 ("straightforward"), zhíjiē 直接 ("direct"), shuǎngkuài 爽快 ("frank"), guǒduàn 果斷 ("decisive"), and bù tuōnídàishuǐ 不拖泥帶水 ("doesn't beat around the bush"). Interesting, now this term āshālì 阿莎力 is even borrowed by Mainlanders as a brand name.

*VHM:  This is a fairly common claim in Taiwan, but we shall call it into question later on in this post.

Melvin Lee:

As far as I know, āshālì 阿沙力 is definitely a loanword from the Japanese word assari あっさり and is often used to describe an "honest, direct, easy to get along with" personality. Here is a link to the definition of this term.

I am not sure if the Japanese word あっさり is in turn a loan word from the English word "assertive". However, āshālì 阿沙力 does include the meaning of "being assertive." For example, when a person is having a difficult time making a decision, his/her friends may urge him/her to be more āshālì 阿沙力. Interestingly though, this word is much more associated with males than females. I think this fact reflects the gender culture in Japan and maybe other Asian countries as well where men are encouraged to be more straightforward and decisive.

Linda Chance:

This looks like an interesting case in which Taiwanese writers felt compelled to assign graphs and ended up with a conversion, if not perversion, of the meaning. I have never seen this word written with ateji [VHM:  kanji used to represent the sounds of native or borrowed words in Japanese without much regard to their meaning]), and those would not be the choice for them, certainly. Assari あっさり、assarishita あっさりした are used to describe the kind of food one would want to eat today, when the temperature is going up over ninety, something light and refreshing, or people who are not bogged down in heavy emotions during some encounter. "Assertive" is on the other end of the continuum, if anywhere, with respect to assari あっさり.

As for coming from English, it could not be via Japanese, as it does not fulfill the most basic sound conversion rules. "Sa" would have to be "se" and "ri" would have to be "ru", and I suspect that if the form were clipped, it would not be at the "ru" either, but after the "chi" that would be called for, even if it were a case of a borrowed onomatopoeic (for which I can't think of an example).

Nathan Hopson

Assari あっさり is a mimetic word (gitaigo 擬態語) in Japanese.
As a flavor, it is “simple and light, w/o acid”.
* Add a bit of vinegar to get さっぱり (sappari)
Perhaps it is best described as the opposite of shitsukoi しつこい, which means “insistent/persistent, cloying, repetitive, etc.” (all negative), because this applies to both flavor and attitude/personality.

My JC dictionary (Poketto puroguresshibu Nit-Chū jiten ポケットプログレッシブ日中辞典 (Pocket Progressive JC Dictionary) gives:

dànbó 淡泊 (“indifferent”);[かんたん 簡単に]jiǎndān 简单 (“simple”)

~shita sūpu したスープ
qīngdàn de tāng 清淡的汤 (“simple / light / plain soup”)
~to kotowarareru と断(ことわ)られる
断然拒绝 (“decisively / categorically refuse”)

According to Nihon kokugo daijiten 日本国語大辞典 (Unabridged dictionary of the Japanese National Language), there are multiple etymological hypotheses for assari あっさり, among which is that it is a mimetic variation on asai 浅い (“shallow”). The っり [VHM: doubling of the consonant + -ri] is a common mimetic ending.

As to whether āshālì 阿莎力 is a borrowing from English or Japanese, I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s Japanese. Historically and linguistically, it makes more sense. It’s the standard explanation given by Wiktionary, for example.

Here is an example from an article [pdf] in Japanese by a Taiwanese researcher on Sino-Taiwanese linguistic difference.  I can translate the relevant section if necessary, but the basic point here is that assari is clearly marked as Japanese.

Although Mandarin āshālì / Taiwanese at3sa55lih3 阿沙力 is derived from Japanese assari, its meaning has shifted significantly, from "easily; readily; quickly; frankly; openheartedly; lightly (flavored food, applied makeup)" in the latter to "straightforward; direct; frank; decisive; doesn't beat around the bush" in the former.  So far as I am aware, āshālì / at3sa55lih3 阿沙力 is not used to describe a flavor or taste of food directly the way assari is (when āshālì / at3sa55lih3 阿沙力 is applied to foods, restaurants, etc., it is not about the taste or flavor; rather, it is borrowing the positive personality trait to valorize the food, restaurant, etc.).  Perhaps it would not be too far off the mark to say that every borrowing is an adaptation.

[Thanks to Grace Wu and Edward McDonald]


  1. krogerfoot said,

    June 20, 2017 @ 2:09 am

    Linda Chance is certainly right in doubting that the term came from "assertive" via Japanese. However, if it had, the second syllable would likely be rendered サー "saa," rather than "se." Japanese kana pronunciation guides present it that way:

  2. leoboiko said,

    June 20, 2017 @ 6:36 am

    I am not sure if the Japanese word あっさり is in turn a loan word from the English word “assertive”.

    Certainly not! Not only the word fits the overall scheme of the huge stratum of mimetic words in Japanese, with the geminated sibilant and the -ri suffix (as noted by Nathan etc.), it's also attested in the Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam (1603):

    DJ1603 DJ333B37S(p3) [J] Assarito.
    [P] Aduerb. Leue, & expeditamẽte. [Adverb. In a light & straightforward manner.]

  3. leoboiko said,

    June 20, 2017 @ 6:52 am

    Although Mandarin āshālì / Taiwanese at3sa55lih3 阿沙力 is derived from Japanese assari, its meaning has shifted significantly, from “easily; readily; quickly; frankly; openheartedly; lightly (flavored food, applied makeup)” in the latter to “straightforward; direct; frank; decisive; doesn’t beat around the bush” in the former.

    It seems to have something of the latter connotation in Japanese, too. Besides the nuances you've noted, it's also glossed as 'frankly; without reserve' in Kenkyūsha's Japanese-English dictionary. Examples of usage include:

    • あっさり断れる: get [be given] a flat refusal; be refused out of hand
    • あっさり無視される be blithely ignored

    The semantic connection seems to be: dismiss, ignore, refuse etc. with a markedly light, casual, swift attitude → act frankly, without reserve. It's true though that in most dictionaries the primary definitions are "without fuss, with simplicity" and "promptly".

  4. ohwilleke said,

    June 20, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    A translation to "candor" or "forthright" seems closer to the meaning that "assertive".

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