Japan: crazy over portmanteaux

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No matter where I go these days, I hear young people shouting to their friends, "I'm playing Pokémon Go", which they pronounce "pokey-mon go".  It would be an understatement to say that, for the past few weeks, Pokémon Go has been a veritable craze.  Yet most people who play the game probably do not realize that the name "Pokémon" is a Japanese portmanteau based on two English words:  poketto ポケット ("pocket") + monsutā モンスター ("monster"). 

"What's in a name — Pikachu, Beikaciu, Pikaqiu?" (5/31/16)

Poketto ("pocket") + noun is a productive means for forming terms that indicate something smaller than its original size (i.e., pocket size; fits in the pocket), e.g., poketto jisho ("dictionary"), poketto tisshu ("tissue paper you can carry in your pocket"), poketto monkii ("tiny monkey", e.g., marmoset).  Usually "poketto" is not reduced to "poke-" as it is in Pokémon, but we also have words like "pokeberu" ("pocket bell") where it is.

In this post, I will introduce a new Japanese portmanteau word that I learned today (they keep popping up all over the place, and many of them make their way into English, with some of them finding a lasting place in our vocabulary.  After familiarizing ourselves with today's new Japanese portmanteau, I'll provide examples of several others to give a sense of the wide range of cultural areas in which they are current, then return to a more detailed look at our portmanteau of the day.

The new word I learned this morning is kyaraben キャラベン, which is an abbreviated form of kyarakutā bentō キャラクター弁当.  Kyarakutā is the Japanese transcription of the English word "character", in the sense of a person portrayed in an artistic work, such as a novel or a play, but not in the sense of a mark or symbol used in a writing system.  The origins of bentō are much more complicated, inasmuch as it is a Sino-Japanese round-trip word.

For the concept of "round-trip word", see:

"'And the greatest Japanese export to China is…'" (8/21/12)

"Sino-Nipponica" (7/26/15)

"Too many recent Japanese loanwords in English?" (7/17/13)

From the Wikipedia article:

"Bento" originates from the Southern Song Dynasty slang term 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng), meaning "convenient" or "convenience." When imported to Japan, it was written with the ateji 便道, 辨道, and 辨當. In shinjitai, 辨 當 is written as 弁当.

In the 20th century, the term was imported to modern Mandarin, rendered as 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng), where it retains its older meaning of "convenient" and also refers to bento in mainland China and generic boxed lunches in Taiwan.

So what are these "kyaraben", or, as they are sometimes called in English, "charaben"?  Japanese mothers have traditionally prepared very elaborate lunch box meals for their children.  In recent years they have been competing with other mothers in making faces of manga, anime, and movie characters with pieces of food that they place on the rice they pack in the bento box:  Mickey Mouse, Pokémon, even Abe Shinzo, the Prime Minister.

Since there are three parallel sets of symbols in written Japanese (katakana, hiragana, and kanji), Japanese "play" with them when they write.  Kyaraben can be written as キャラ弁・キャラべん・キャラベン (katakana + kanji, katakana plus hiragana, and all katakana), but キャラ弁 is probably most common.  When Japanese create portmanteau words of this type, they tend to use kanji wherever available, at least while they are new, because it helps them catch the meaning at first.  Once users of a new term become accustomed to it, however, the kanji are apt to be replaced fairly quickly by kana.

Before "Pokémon" and "kyaraben", the most famous of all Japanese portmanteau words was "karaoke", which is derived from a Japanese morpheme meaning "empty" and the first part of the English word "orchestra".  For a more detailed explanation, see the third paragraph in this comment.

There are many, many other words of this sort.  I'll just run through a few that reveal the productivity and flexibility of portmanteau formation in Japanese.

I'll start with my favorite, which is wāpuro ワープロ, short for wādopurosessa ワードプロセッサ ("word processor").  I just love that!

Similar is pasokon パソ コン (contracted from pāsonaru パーソナル ("personal") + konpyutā コンピューター ("computer"), i.e., PC.

Here's another really fascinating one:  furītā フリーター.  That's a portmanteau of the first part of English "freelance" and the last syllable of the German word "arbeiter" ("worker").  I should mention that German "arbeit" (which may be defined by the Japanized English word "wākingu" ["working"]) is deeply embedded in modern Japanese as arubaito アルバイト ("part-time job", not "work").

Furītā are "young people subsisting on part-time work".  They are sometimes referred to in English as "freeter".  For a fuller dictionary definition, see the entry in jisho.

Jolyon Thomas thinks:

…it’s perfectly natural for this sort of portmanteau to develop. My personal favorite is “skinship” スキンシップ, which is not a boat made of flesh but rather physical affection (skin + [friend]ship). Contemporary Japanese is filled with these sorts of things. They usually develop because speakers try to find the most expedient way to phrase things. In bilingual groups this tends to happen anyway. My bilingual friends and I code-switch mid-sentence for expediency, and I think that the same thing happens with particular words.

Japanese is fond of all sorts of abbreviations, including those that are based on transcriptions of foreign words as well as those that are based on native Japanese words.  See "ALT-DAIGO" (3/26/16).

But such words come and go.

Here are some that are nearing obsolescence:

akeome あけおめ — from akemashite omedetō (gozaimasu) ("Happy New Year!)

kotoyoro ことよろ — the follow up to the previous expression, shortened from kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu, roughly equivalent to "Best wishes this year, too!"

akeome mēru あけおめメール (the last word means "mail") was quite a phenomenon a decade or more ago now

Let's return to kyaraben キャラーベン ("character lunchbox") to discuss some general issues pertaining to the phenomenon of elaborate lunch box meals.  One of my colleagues suggested that it is the result of the nature of Japan's middle-class society and shōshika 少子化 ("falling birthrate").  If you don't have money or you have five kids, you can't do it.  Another factor may be that most Japanese women, once they choose to get married and start their families, devote their time almost 100% to taking care of their (husbands and) children.  Marriage is still a career for many Japanese women.

I asked several friends and colleagues whether this were not fundamentally the same as the old kyōiku mama 教育ママ ("education mom") complex.  I was told, though, that a kyōiku mama is not necessarily a kyaraben mama, and vice versa.  Also, there are different degrees of kyōiku mamaness.  In general, I was surprised by how negative the view of kyōiku mama tended to be:

"I don't know too many of them. I guess the worst of them are pretty murderous".

"I can't say anything positive about kyoiku mama.  They can't see beyond their own small society.   Their value is completely distorted.   Instead of finding their own lives,  they try to control their children's lives in order to live in them.   However, it is in a way a reflection of Japanese society as a whole.   The success of the Japanese economy in the 80s was definitely brought about by this kind of mentality.   There are people who say that individualism will never be fully understood (and rooted) in Japan, and I happen to agree with them."

[VHM:  Both of the above comments were made by Japanese women.  The next two comments were made by an American man who is married to a Japanese woman and an American professor of contemporary Japanese culture]

"The negativity of the Wikipedia article captures quite well my understanding of the stereotype. It's typical of stereotypes of women in misogynist cultures like Japan or the US (and to some extent of minorities in racist cultures): damned if you do, damned if you don't. If women are driven to achieve (in whatever role), they are hated for being uppity, 'hard' and unfeminine 'bitches,' etc. If they fall into whatever 'feminine' role apportioned for them, that's hardly better. They confirm the stereotypes, 'hurt' other women, etc."

"Like 'millennials' and 'otaku,' the 'kyōiku mama' is a fiction created by journalists to sell copy. In my opinion scholars of Japan should avoid treating these stereotypes as if they are real. It is true that some Japanese mothers are in an arms race over who can make the best bentō. But this isn’t at all new. See Anne Allison’s chapter on the lunchbox as ideological state apparatus in Permitted and Prohibited Desires. That research was done in the 1990s, I believe.

Some closing observations on kyaraben, karaoke, Pokémon, and related topics by Nathan Hopson:

The preferred orthography for kyaraben is キャラ弁. Retaining the 弁 character distinguishes it from, say, karaoke (カラオケ). This may have something to do with the entertainment (non-domestic, global consumerist, etc.) meaning of karaoke versus the domestic (mom's homemade cooking) aspect of the bentō. In Japanese, the strong preference is still to katakana-ize the masculine, the global, the consumerist, the "yang," and to use more "native" (either Yamato kotoba / wago or at least Sinitic) constructions, locutions, and orthographies for the feminine, the domestic, the "yin."

The difference now is the emphasis on キャラ in the bentō. Since at least the 1980s, there has been pressure from aspirational consumerist magazines, then television, and now the internet to produce more and more complex and kawaii food creations for children. Anne Allison wrote a great article on this back in 1991. What's new is the rise of the specific, recognizable, branded キャラ as fetishized mark of distinction. No longer will any adorable mound of rice shaped like some adorable (common noun) animal or another suffice! Give your four-year-old a dozen more Disney characters all stacked up like her favorite game for her iPad!

The acceleration and intensification of competition between consumers / producers / mothers, the obsession with novelty, the rereading of food into overtly global capitalist symbolic networks….

I was reminded of a French documentary I saw recently, which described the marketing of food to children around the world. Even in France, where regulation is quite stringent and things are not so bad, multinationals like Nestle bypass controls on TV advertising by creating free kids games for mobile devices featuring their most addictive products (Oreos, McDonald's fries, etc.) as the heroes.

Perhaps the most famous portmanteau in Japanese is karaoke, though.  It's a testament to the brilliantly flexible syncretism of the language, and also to the ways in which language becomes globalized in thickly tangled webs of exchange.

カラオケ, from 空 (kara; empty) and オーケストラ (ōkesutora; orchestra), takes a nativized Japanese (of course, Sinitic) word for emptiness and combines it with an absolutely unrecognizable shortened form of the Anglo-European "orchestra", writes it all out in katakana, and then feeds that back into English and other languages, which nativize it again. Thus, "karry-o-key" in English, etc., which carries (audio pun intended) no hint of any of its linguistic origins. It has become colorless, odorless, global.

The most interesting things about "Pokémon" from my perspective, then, are the following:

1. The Japanese pronunciation of "Pokémon" is proscribed by the katakana (ポケモン). An attempt was made in the Anglification to preserve some of that pronunciation, or at least avoid "poke mon" butcherings, with the accent grave. Nice try. It's "Pokey-mon" here. I've heard so many Anglophone English teachers in Japan complain about how "the Japanese" screw everything up with their weird, phonically limited transliteration system that precludes them hearing English pronunciation. Apparently, two can play at this game. It's "pokey" in Pokėmon and "okey" in karaoke is precisely the limitations of English phonics: no "eh" where you can have a schwa or an "ee," especially word final as in karaoke, kamikaze, etc.

2. It's like karaoke on steroids! Two English words, katakana-ized, chopped in half, glued together, and then shipped back out to take over the world. Amazing!

To all of which I have only one word:  mezurashī ("extraordinary"*)!

*That's my own definition; dictionaries usually give the following:  "unusual; rare; curious".  In truth, when I say this word, I always think of it as conveying wonder and admiration, as it did in the mid-700s.

[Thanks to Frank Chance, Cecilia Seigle, and Hiroko Sherry]


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    Portmanteau words (Lewis Carroll coined that term) are fun in English too. My wife, when she gets going, is a fast talker, and often runs words together, creating spontaneous ones. My favorite is her statement "Obama is a great stratistician." Strategist and statistician. I recommend that word for wider use.

  2. Gene Anderson said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 11:00 am

    …and now Mexican artist Mona Robles has created "Pokemayans" with cartoons based on Maya art! Multiple portmanteauing.

  3. Mara K said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 11:05 am

    I've never heard anyone say "pokey-mon", though I have seen it in YA novels, so I can only assume it's a thing. My pronunciation of "Pokemon" is not quite the Japanese one (which is prominent in a number of the Pokemon anime theme songs), but it fits more closely with this joke:

    How do you fit two Venusaurs and a Charizard onto a bus?
    You poke 'em on.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 11:16 am

    Can someone explain why the Japanization of English words is so decidedly nonrhotic?

  5. John said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    Of course, karaoke then became 卡拉OK in Chinese, further obliterating any sign of the etymology of its English half by replacing it with that most famous of (American) English loanwords, OK!

  6. Jon W said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

    Coby Lubliner: That's a really good question. Post-vocalic "l"s are preserved in katakana-ization (idoru, hoteru, bo-ru). Also, "r"s in loanwords from the German often seem to be rendered rhotically (arerugi-, arubaito, enerugi-, yo-guruto). But the only rhotic postvocalic "r" I can think of deriving from an English word in katakana is the one in "beer" (-> bi-ru). German words tended to enter Japanese during the Meiji period, and many English words entered later; I don't know if that's significant or not.

  7. Justin said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

    "An attempt was made in the Anglification to preserve some of that pronunciation, or at least avoid "poke mon" butcherings, with the accent grave."

    Accent aigu.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 12:58 pm

    Jon W: I always thought biiru came from German Bier, otherwise it would have been bia.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

    Or maybe Dutch?

  10. Jon W said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

    Coby Lubliner: That makes sense. Mark Irwin's Loan Words in Japanese says it's Dutch. Irwin also points to the English-derived bataa supplanting the Dutch-derived bootoru for butter, which is a great example of what we're talking about. He says that the non-rhotic practice for English is "in all probability due to the prestige accorded the RP pronunciation of British foreign advisors, who comprised the majority of English-speaking advisors when dictionary traditions were beginning to take shape in the late 19th century."

  11. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    For further Pokemon portmanteaux (Pokemonteaux), see John Kelly's piece for Slate's Lexicon Valley blog, and his more R-rated post for Strong Language.

  12. Mara K said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    @Ben is a Pokemonteau a case that holds Pokeballs containing Pokemon?

  13. Bathrobe said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 3:31 pm

    Can someone explain why the Japanization of English words is so decidedly nonrhotic?

    I suspect the current system of pronunciation used for borrowing words from English was adopted in the late Meiji-Shōwa period, when the 'King's English' was regarded as the standard. It's now become a conventionalised system for transliterating English words into katakana and isn't actually based on spoken English at all. Even Japanese who follow American English (probably the majority) know the rules for transliterating English words into Japanese. For instance, if you were transliterating words like 'bower' or 'rotivator' into Japanese, they would automatically become バワー bawā and ロティベーター rotibētā or ローティベーター rōtibētā. In the early years of contact with the West borrowing was more aural, e.g., 'drawers' was borrowed as ズロース zurōsu, and I believe one word for dog was カメヤ kameya (from 'Come here!), but those days are long past.

  14. Bathrobe said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

    One Japanese word that is mangled in English is 絵文字 emoji, which I've mostly heard as the cringe-inducing /i:moʊʤi:/. I also have a sister who pronounces 盆栽 bonsai as /bonzai/. I assume it's under the influence of 'banzai'.

  15. Jongseong Park said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

    It looks like the official name in Japanese is ポケットモンスター poketto monsutā, and ポケモン pokemon is just the abbreviated nickname. They chose the latter for export purposes instead of "Pocket Monster" because there is already a media franchise called "Monster in My Pocket".

    In Korean, the full name is used as in Japanese—포켓몬스터 poket-monseuteo → pokenmonseuteo "pocket-monster" (tm sequences assimilate to nm). But the shortened version 포켓몬 poket-mon → pokenmon "pocket-mon" is also commonly used, perhaps influenced by the international name Pokémon. Since 'pocket' is already only two syllables in the Korean rendition, the 't' has been kept in the shortened Korean name.

    Korean has adopted a number of English-derived Japanese portmanteaux over the years, but because of differences in phonology, there is the question of how much to reconstruct the English sounds that have collapsed together in Japanese. I remember encountering 퍼스컴 peoseukeom "pers-com (personal computer)", a borrowing of パソコン pasokon, in a single book I read as a child and nowhere else—it would have been difficult to compete against the snappier "PC". But notice that the Japanese form renders the "perso-" part as パソ paso, with the spelling-derived full vowel "o", the Korean form uses the epenthetic vowel 으 eu instead because "personal" is written 퍼스널 peoseuneol.

    Korean uses 가라오케 garaoke "karaoke", but usually in a more restricted sense to mean the sketchier and more secretive places that serve alcohol—normal karaokes where you go to sing are just called 노래방 noraebang "singing room". I've seen 프리터 peuriteo "freeter" only sparingly in the news media, usually in reports about the social phenomenon; I don't know how many average Koreans will be able to tell you what it means. But 스킨십/스킨쉽 seukinsip/seukinswip "skinship" is definitely very widely used and understood, to the point that many Koreans would be surprised to find out that it isn't ordinarily used in English.

  16. Christian Horn said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 5:10 pm

    Also fascinating in Pokemon and Japanese context:

    Japanese has multiple verbs for "to be", the to most often used ones are "ある", which is used for immaterial/immobile/not living things, and "いる" for living things.

    I was surprised to learn that いる is used for gods, newer robots like the Sony aibo dog, and also Pokemon. So these are considered to share more with living things than nonliving things.

  17. Jim Breen said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

    Getting back to where Victor started with "キャラーベン", that version is, I suspect, a minor typo.* The correct katakana term is キャラベン, but the far more common surface form is キャラ弁. The Google Japanese n-gram counts (2007 data) report:
    キャラベン 50
    キャラーベン 0 (i.e. <20)
    キャラ弁 319789

    キャラ弁 has been around for at least a decade. It has an entry in the big 大辞林 dictionary, and the inevitable Wikipedia page.

    *VHM: Fixed now. That stray dash got in there erroneously. It was not meant to indicate a long vowel, but to separate the syllables. Shouldn't have been there. Thanks for catching it, Jim.

  18. Noel Hunt said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

    “Skinship”, スキンシップ, is not a portmanteau created by the Japanese. According to the Japanese wikipedia, quoting 日本大百科全書 ('nippon daihyakka zensho', 'Encyclopedia Nipponica'), at a WHO seminar hosted in 1953, an American woman coined the term which then was then introduced to Japan by Hirai Nobuyoshi (平井 信義), who was a child psychologist, critic and doctor.

  19. KWillets said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 8:11 pm

    @Jongseong we're at a family resort in Korea right now, and I noticed that 노래연습장 (Norae Yeonseubjang – singing practice room) is their preferred term for the 노래방 (Noraebang). Maybe they're taking it to the next level. My best guess is that it's a Noraebang with less skinship :).

  20. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 8:12 pm

    From June Teufel Dreyer:

    “Emoji” is another good one. A couple of months back, one of the major JP newspapers proudly announced that the word had been included in the latest edition of the OED. The article didn’t actually say that this was another example of a Japanese gift to the world, but the motivation was clearly there.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

    From Miki Morita:

    1. What do you think of this kind of portmanteau word formed from part of an English word and part of a Sino-Japanese word, moreover written in katakana?

    I think that the work is usually written as キャラ弁. I see that Japanese really love abbreviate words, and this one is just one of those examples. I personally do not like this trend of over-abbreviation of terms, so usually avoid using shortened terms.

    2. Isn't this what kyoiku mama have been doing all along?

    I think that kyara-ben is nothing to do with kyoiku mama. Some mothers really like making small things with great hand skills. I almost feel that kyara-ben rather belongs to such "handicraft" category thank to "cooking" category. Kyoiku mama is more about education. If kyoiku mamas see that kyara-ben contributes to their children's education, they would probably enthusiastically make kyara-ben for their children.

    3. Are kyoiku mama really as negative as this article makes them out to be?

    It's been perceived rather as negative educational behavior, I feel. Some kyoiku mama are a bit crazy and take freedom away from their children – and they tend to be featured as the stereotypical kyoiku mama. However, the term itself is very vague without rigid definition. One can be a great mother and simultaneously can be kyoiku mama by caring much about her children's education and future success.


    4. Does キャラ (short for キャラクター) mean both "character" as the representation of a person in a narrative and a written symbol like a kanji?

    I am not sure if I got your question right, but キャラcertainly means a person in a narrative. I am not sure if it is also perceived as a written symbol like a kanji. For me, キャラis nothing but the abbreviated form of キャラクター.

  22. Jim Breen said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

    @Victor. Re: "I am not sure if it is also perceived as a written symbol like a kanji. "

    大辞林 lists 3 senses for キャラクター, and the 3rd is: "文字。記号。 「 −-ディスプレー」 ". I suspect most Japanese would regard the 文字 in that gloss as referring to alphabetics, numerics, etc. and not really to kanji.

  23. Jason said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 8:53 pm

    @Coby Lubiner Can someone explain why the Japanization of English words is so decidedly nonrhotic?

    Perhaps American r-coloured vowels are sufficiently far away from Japanese's flapped "r" that there's too much of a psychic gulf in associating one sound with another. Instead, the vowel simply lengthens, performing exactly the phonetic transformation that non-rhotic dialects do.

  24. John said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 2:00 am

    In Hong Kong Cantonese, karaoke is just "K" except when written on a sign.

    20 years ago when Pokemon first arrived in Hong Kong, we pronounced it "pocky-mon" (in English), not "pokey-mon".

    The original Japanese cards were labeled with the full katakana ポケットモンスター and POCKET MONSTERS in English so the derivation was always clear to me. In fact, the main reason I first learned kana was because I wanted to decipher the Japanese on the cards. The English versions only arrived a few years later.

  25. mollymooly said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 5:38 am

    The English pronunciation of "emoji" is surely influenced by connection with "emotion", "emoticon". The fact that the resemblance is coincidental is not obvious.

  26. NV said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    >カラオケ, from 空 (kara; empty) and オーケストラ (ōkesutora; orchestra), takes a nativized Japanese (of course, Sinitic) word for emptiness

    Could you clarify what you mean by Sinitic? "Kara" is most certainly a native Japanese word.

  27. Alyssa said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 8:27 am

    Wow, it never occurred to me that the "emo" in emoji might not come from "emotion" – I had assumed it was another portmanteau word: エモーション字 -> エモ字

  28. Berna said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 8:58 am

    "The Japanese pronunciation of "Pokémon" is proscribed by the katakana" – shouldn't that be *pre*scribed?

  29. Jongseong Park said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 9:06 am

    @KWillets: Indeed, the legal name for 노래방 noraebang "singing room" without a liquor licence is now 노래연습장 norae-yeonseupjang "singing practice hall". I think newer places are legally required to use 노래연습장 norae-yeonseupjang in their names, though older ones called 노래방 noraebang are allowed to keep their original names. But in everyday speech people still say 노래방 noraebang for these places, as 노래연습장 norae-yeonseupjang has the artificial feel of a term made up for regulatory purposes.

  30. languagehat said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 9:10 am

    "Bento" originates from the Southern Song Dynasty slang term 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng), meaning "convenient" or "convenience." When imported to Japan, it was written with the ateji 便道, 辨道, and 辨當. In shinjitai, 辨 當 is written as 弁当.

    In the 20th century, the term was imported to modern Mandarin, rendered as 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng), where it retains its older meaning of "convenient" and also refers to bento in mainland China and generic boxed lunches in Taiwan.

    If this is accurate, it's not a round-trip word unless you believe words can secretly carry long-forgotten meanings from ancient dynasties in their DNA, to magically reappear when transplanted back to their native soil. It's simply a Chinese word that's acquired an additional meaning from Japanese.

  31. Bloix said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 10:17 am

    My 20-something children, who were huge fans when they were small, were well aware that the name means le pocket monsters.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 11:12 am


    The whole idea of a "round-trip word" (I coined that expression and defined what it meant) is that it starts in China with one meaning, goes to Japan and picks up another meaning, then is sent back to China with the new meaning. The original meaning naturally continues to exist in the reading of old texts.

    This process accounts for much of the key scientific and intellectual vocabulary of the modern Chinese vocabulary, e.g., "religion", "economics", "literature", "grammar", "culture", "civilization", "analysis", "physics", "art", "law", "freedom", "revolution", "course; curriculum", "right(s)", "mechanical", "opportunity", "education", "professor", "republic(an)", "labor", "politics", "society", "progress", "credit", "thought", "chairman", "[social or political] movement", etc.

    Of course, the Japanese invented many other terms for modern scientific and intellectual concepts that did not previously exist in Chinese, e.g., most of those ending with -gaku / -xué 學 ("learning; -logy") from the late 19th and early 20th century.

    See "'And the greatest Japanese export to China is…'" (8/21/12), next to the last paragraph, and this comment, among many other places where I've written about round-trip words.

    I have to agree, though, that the Wikipedia quotation to which you refer makes what happened in the case of biàndāng > bentō, and then back to China with the new meaning, sound unnecessarily complicated.

    Also, I should mention that the "round-trip" process of borrowing and reborrowing does not exist only between Chinese and Japanese. Wikipedia has a good article on the subject of reborrowing here.

  33. Bathrobe said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 3:15 pm

    If this is accurate, it's not a round-trip word unless you believe words can secretly carry long-forgotten meanings from ancient dynasties in their DNA, to magically reappear when transplanted back to their native soil. It's simply a Chinese word that's acquired an additional meaning from Japanese.

    It may not be from ancient dynasties, but there is a kind of "DNA" involved in round-trip characters: the process is almost completely based on the written language, and the written form of characters is correlated with both meaning and pronunciation. In "borrowing back" words from Japanese, the Chinese are taking back morphemes that have instantly recognisable meanings, which to a remarkable extent have been preserved over the centuries. The original DNA is visible right there on the surface and is a major element in the actual borrowing. The Japanese pronunciation is almost irrelevant.

    This can be seen if we compare our own borrowing from Japanese. If we borrow a word like 'tycoon' there is virtually no "DNA" involved because the original semantics of the word is invisible to us. The word was originally applied to the shogun and only later developed the meaning of 'business magnate' in English.

    The Chinese situation is more complicated. Chinese does use the term 大君 dàjūn in specialised meanings related to Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Japanese history. Some of these equate to the original Chinese meaning ('emperor'), others have been borrowed back into Chinese in their Japanese or Korean meanings. One of the Japanese meanings is the original sense of 'shogun'. The word 大君 has also been applied by the Chinese to maharajas.

    But the Chinese also borrowed 'tycoon' direct from English, not, of course, as 大君 dàjūn but sinicised as 大亨 dàhēng. The meaning is 'business magnate'. Notice that only part of the "DNA" has survived this circuitous trip: the character 大 (big).

  34. Bathrobe said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

    I forgot to mention that 亨 hēng means 'prosperous'. The sinicised form is a creative way of borrowing 'tycoon'. It was possibly influenced by Japanese since those who sinicised it were quite possibly aware that it was from Japanese 大君. The decision to use 亨 hēng 'prosperous' instead of 君 jūn 'lord' was also quite possibly because the "DNA" of 君 is so clearly visible to the Chinese and felt to be incongruous.

  35. languagehat said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 4:10 pm

    Thanks, Bathrobe, that's educational and persuasive!

  36. Tim Martin said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

    It's amazing to me that the most natural pronunciation of "pokemon" for many Americans/English-speakers is "pokeymon" (or "pokeyman).

    Pokemon (with a schwa sound) has always seemed much more natural to me, but the "pokeymon" pronunciation seems at least as popular, if not more so.

  37. tangent said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 2:31 am

    Tim Martin, I've assumed that was because speakers saw the accent and knew something odd was supposed to happen on the vowel, and the schwa would be normal for a vowel there.

    Or maybe it was taken for a macron?

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