Tero: an English word in Japanese garb

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Three days ago, I passed through immigration at Kansai International Airport (near Osaka).  I was struck by a large, prominently displayed word in katakana (syllabary for transcription of foreign words and onomatopoeia):  tero テロ.

Since I was in a restricted area of the airport, naturally I couldn't take a picture of the signs with this word on them, but I knew right away from the circumstances what it signified:  "terrorism" — they were taking strict precautions against it.

English words form such a large proportion of the modern Japanese vocabulary that, if one adjusts his hearing to the rules for sound changes and truncation and listens carefully, one can understand a lot of what is being spoken just by focusing on the gairaigo 外来語 ("loan / borrowed words") with which Japanese is peppered.

Thus, for lunch I had a dish that featured kyabetsu キャベツ ("cabbage") and pōkuchoppu ポークチョップ, for which my host paid with a kurejittokādo クレジットカード ("credit card").  On the other hand, when she came out in the morning, she had forgotten to bring her ETC kādo ("ETC card" [for "Electronic Toll Collection"]), so she had to pay the tolls along the way with cash.

We had been on an outing to the stupendous Himeji Castle.  As we were about to leave, I noticed a sign displaying an ominous, arachnid-looking black object with a camera hanging beneath it inside a red circle and a diagonal line through the black object in the center of the circle.  I knew at once that it meant "no drones".  So I asked another one of my hosts how to say "drone" in Japanese.  "Dorōn ドローン", he said, with a slightly sheepish look on his face.

Selected readings

"Too many English loanwords in Japanese?" (7/12/13)

"Magi, myrrh, and mummies" (12/24/14)

"Massive borrowing" (2/18/19)

"'When does one's native language stop being native?'" (8/26/13)


  1. jin defang said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 11:27 am

    in written form, these are distinguishable from real Japanese words because they're written with a different set of kana. As spoken, they can be confusing: the Japanese for "rush hour" sounds just like "Reischauer," for example. Sekuhara sounds like a real Japanese word, but it actually means sexual harassment. And rotenburo isn't a rotten borough, as used in English history, but an open air bath.

  2. John Tkacik said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 12:22 pm

    Language Log is a national treasure!

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

    When I was touring Japan in 1989, I noticed that my camera lens needed cleaning, so I went into a photo shop and asked for renzu kuriiningu tissyuu. I got what I needed, but I found out that the correct Japanese term was renzu kuriiningu peepaa.
    I discovered that Japanese uses English words even for things that are inherently Japanese if they are put into a "Western" context, such as karee raisu (curry rice) or miruku tii (milk tea).
    I also noticed that, while 旅馆 (lǚguǎn) in Chinese means 'hotel,' in Japanese (ryokan) it designates only a traditional Japanese in, while an international-style hotel is hoteru.

  4. Molly Des Jardin said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 2:21 pm

    You may already know about our reference books on "wasei eigo," or "Japanese English" in the Penn collection (and countless others). These are words that are often assumed to be borrowed from English but as the 和製 indicates, are made in Japan. Depending on what many people in Japan think are English loanwords to get by is a lot more complicated than it may seem! I like to give the example of a word that tripped me up for a long time. "Death Note" is a popular series and is about a notebook, not notes. Notes are a "memo." Just when you start to get confident there is always something new to find out!

  5. Chris Button said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 2:52 pm

    "Magi, myrrh, and mummies" (12/24/14)

    I was interested to read the following there:

    The Chinese word for myrrh is a transcription, 没 or 末, both or which are pronounced mò in Modern Standard Mandarin. These two characters have been chosen purely for their sound; the choice has nothing whatsoever to do with their meaning, respectively "not; un-; drown; sink; die; disappear" and "end; last / latter part; final stage; tip".

    Laufer, p. 461:

    The former Chinese character answers to ancient *mut or *mur; the latter to *mwat, mwar, or mar. The former no doubt represents attempts at reproducing the Semito-Persian name, — Hebrew mōr, Aramaic murā, Arabic murr, Persian mor….

    It makes an interesting point of comparison with the following (from here https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=44944#comment-1568642):

    It turns out that in Sino-Platonic Papers #153, 2005, Prof. Mair is noted as having suggested a possible association of the word "marijuana" with the Semitic root mrr "bitter", from whence Arabic murr (sing.) ʾamrār (pl.) "myrrh", and possibly also Chinese.

    The merger of *-r with *-l in Old Chinese means 麻 *mrál could have gone back to an earlier 麻 *mrár which then aligns very nicely with the Semitic source to support Prof. Mair's suggestion.

    We already have a precedent for a borrowing of this nature in 桂 *qájs "cinnamon, cassia" which could regularly go back to *qjáts and is likely associated with Hebrew qetsia "cassia".

  6. Josh said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 7:08 pm

    >> "Death Note" is a popular series and is about a notebook, not notes. Notes are a "memo." Just when you start to get confident there is always something new to find out!

    Then you have メモ memo meaning "notes", and add the ubiquitous verb ending る "ru", and you get メモる memoru, meaning "to take notes".

    But what I really like are the loanwords whose transliterated form creates a new verb. So you have "trouble", which becomes トラブル "toraburu", which is then verbed as "トラブる", meaning "to make trouble".

    Likewise, "double" becomes "ダブル" daburu, which becomes ダブる, a very common word for "duplicate, or overlap".

  7. Mark Meckes said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 7:53 pm

    My favorite example of the ubiquity of English borrowings and English language comprehension among speakers of other languages is the fact that when I took a course in Japanese at the University of Munich, one of our vocabulary words was テープレコーダー (tēpurekōdā), which none of the German students in the class had any trouble guessing the meaning of.

  8. PeterL said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 10:56 pm

    Today on a bus I saw:
    With a nice translation: "Courage defeats terrorism."

  9. Molly Des Jardin said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 12:18 pm

    Josh, you may be jazzed to see a recent example I found of this verbing phenomenon: ジャズる. And it was used in the context of a dictionary! Not the kind of action I usually associate with dictionaries but I liked the mental image.

  10. Josh R said,

    December 3, 2019 @ 7:17 pm

    Molly Des Jardin said, "Josh, you may be jazzed to see a recent example I found of this verbing phenomenon: ジャズる. And it was used in the context of a dictionary! Not the kind of action I usually associate with dictionaries but I liked the mental image."

    Fascinating! For those who can't read Japanese, Molly has kindly pointed out the word "jazuru", with the verb ending "-ru" tacked on to the loanword for "jazz".

    According to an online slang dictionary, the meaning is "to enjoy jazz, to match up with the mood or atmosphere". The commentary goes on to say (my translation):
    "Popular during the Showa-era jazz boom, it originally referred to performing jazz, or to dancing to jazz music. From the lively youth at the dance halls where these took place, it also took on the meaning of acting lively or noisy.
    Even further, recently attention has been placed on the improvisational (adlibbing, jam session) [aspect of jazz], and it has been used with a nuance of "fitting the mood" or "fitting one's disposition". For example, "I'm jazzing with her," (彼女とジャズってる, kanojo to jazutte-ru) to mean "I'm getting along with her and things are going well."

    Here's the entry:

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