Garakei: Galapagos cell phone

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Recently I've been hearing about a Japanese electronic device called a "garakei ガラケイ". Mystified by this katakana word, which I assumed to be at least partially the transcription of some foreign term, I set about trying to find out more about it.

It wasn't hard to discover (here and here) that the word basically means "Galapagos cell phone". What a strange name for a kind of cell phone!

Before explaining why it is styled "Galapagos", let's address the form and meaning of the word garakei ガラケイ ("Galapagos cell phone").

Phonologically, garapagosu ガラパゴス ("Galapagos") + keitai ケイタイ ("cell phone") = garakei ガラケイ ("Galapagos cell phone"). It's also written garakē ガラケー (because kētai ケータイ is an accepted, indeed preferred, katakana-ization). I should note that keitai ケイタイ (or kētai ケータイ) is the first portion of keitai denwa 携帯電話 ("mobile phone"), where keitai 携帯 means "carry (along); mobile" and denwa 電話 means "(tele)phone". The Chinese word for "cell phone" is completely different, being shǒujī 手机 (lit., "hand device"), and "mobile phone" is yídòng diànhuà 移动电话. The word xiédài 携带 ("carry; take along; portable") does exist in Chinese, but it was not chosen to form the word for "cell / mobile phone" as it was in Japanese.

Incidentally, the Chinese word shǒujī 手机 (lit., "hand device", i.e., "cell phone") reminds me of the German word for the same device, viz., "handy", which is a peculiarly German usage of the English word.

So why is the garakei ガラケイ referred to as having to do with the Galapagos? The idea is that, like the animals and birds of the Galapagos Islands, which developed unique traits in isolation from mainland species so as to fit their special environment, the garakei ガラケイhas features that were developed solely in and for people of the Japanese islands without regard to global IT trends. Thus, garakei are not known or used in places outside Japan. Naturally, they have some features that are shared with cell phones elsewhere (e.g., built-in camera), but they also have functions that do not exist outside of Japan.

This usage of the characterization garapagosu ガラパゴス ("Galapagos") has become very popular in Japan, especially for products from the Sharp Corporation that are thought to be especially well adapted to the current needs of Japanese consumers.

To summarize for garakei, while it is said that this was originally a self-effacing "joke" name, it now refers more generally to any of the (mostly) non-smartphone mobile phones with Japan-only features like wansegu ワンセグ (1seg ["one segment"] for watching TV), FM radio, o saifukētai おサイフケータイ ("mobile wallet"; phone = credit card), etc., and is a nod to the "unique evolution" in an "isolated archipelago" that brought these phones about.

Another new and related Japanese word that has been put together from borrowed English components is "sumaho (スマホ)", which is an abbreviation of "smart phone". In Japan today, you see and hear this word everywhere.

Here are a few more borrowings (but also adaptations and transformations) of this type, some a little bit earlier than garakei and sumaho:

afureko アフレコ ("after recording") in the recording, movie, and audio industries

masucomi マスコミ ("mass communication media")

sekuhara セクハラ ("sexual harassment")

chaidoru チャイドル ("child idol" — very young media darlings)

You can find more abbreviated borrowings of this sort here, although many of the expressions on this list are abbreviated wholly or partly from Japanese words.

Once again (in this recent post and many others on Language Log), we see the Japanese love of borrowing and their zest for doing interesting things with the words and things that they borrow.

[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Nathan Hopson, Hiroko Sherry, and Miki Morita]


  1. Nils von Barth said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 3:23 am

    The English term for this class of phones is “feature phone”, though that seems more of an industry term, while garakei is an everyday slang term in Japan (and narrowly refers to Japanese feature phones).

    Regarding German “handy” for a mobile phone: this term is also used in Japanese, as ハンディフォン handifon or just ハンディ handi, but narrowly refers to PHS phones (Personal Handy-phone System), an East Asian mobile phone system dating to 1989, which in Japan is now only used by Willcom. The German term appears to be unrelated to PHS, as PHS has only been used in East Asia.

  2. Stephen said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 5:35 am

    Calling a mobile (phone) a 'handy' is not unique to German.

    I have quite a lot of interaction with people in other countries and I am sure that I have seen people from Singapore use handy and reasonably sure that I have seen people from HK use handy as well.

    Also I have seen it used by people in continental Europe who are not *in* Germany. Whether they are German people working in other countries or they come from places that are German speaking (e.g. the 'corner' of Luxembourg) I don't know.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 7:00 am

    @Nils von Barth and Stephen

    Thanks for your input. It is good to know that people outside of Germany seem to be using the term "handy" as well, but I'd still like confirmation on whether this usage occurred first in German as a general term for cell phones.

  4. Daniel said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 8:36 am

    Korean has hyudae-pon 휴대폰 and hyudae chǒnwa 휴대 전화 (both meaning "portable phone", using the same characters as the Japanese keitai 携帯), but in colloquial speech the more common term seems to be haendǔ-pon 핸드폰, i.e. "handphone". Dictionaries indicate that the word "handphone" in English is "Southeast Asian" (Singaporean and Malaysian?), which fits with Stephen's observation of "handy" in Singaporean English.

  5. JMU said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    Another example: bea 'across-the-board salary increase' ベア, from beesu appu ベースアップ = English "base up". The sources and semantic narrowings in words like this are always fascinating.

  6. quixote said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    As a biologist in the US who has to boggle periodically that creationism is still a thing here, it gives me a warm-and-fuzzy to hear that evolutionary theory is important to cell phone slang in Japan!

  7. flow said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    just wanted to add that in Korea, 'HP' is sometimes used in place of 핸드폰.

  8. Klaas `Z4us` V said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    A smartphone sometimes is called 'aaifoon' in Dutch after the way in English the letter 'I' is pronounced. "Ik aai" means "I rub". Makes sense, doesn't it?

  9. Jean-Michel said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 11:50 pm

    In Vietnamese it seems a cell phone is điện thoại di động, from the Sinitic 電話移動—literally "phone mobile," or the Chinese 移動電話 with the word order modified to reflect Vietnamese head-initial grammar. This is commonly abbreviated in writing as "ĐTDĐ," but I'm not sure this carries over to speech (one of the things about Vietnamese acronyms is they're not actually any shorter to say).

  10. Akito said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    Young Japanese call PHS ピッチ (picchi), short for ピーエッチエス (pīecchiesu).

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

    Thanks, Akito! That is very cool.

    For those of you who aren't familiar with katakana AND romaji, ピーエッチエス is simply the Japanese pronunciation of PHS.

  12. dainichi said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 12:24 am

    "Regarding German “handy” for a mobile phone: this term is also used in Japanese, as ハンディフォン handifon or just ハンディ handi".

    I would conjecture that not very many Japanese would associate ハンディ (at least without the フォン) with a PHS. As Akito says ピッチ and ピーエッチエス are the common names.

    ハンディ to me means "handicap" (as in bowling) in isolation, but could mean "handy" in compounds used for gadget names (ハンディカム "handycam" etc). Looking online, I also see it used for those electronic gadgets used at some restaurants when taking orders.

    I think ガラケー now pretty much means any mobile phone but a smart phone, regardless of Japan specific features. At least I hear it a lot when people make fun of me for not having a smart phone yet.

  13. Kashiwagi said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    I really doubt any 'Young Japanese' (under the age of 25~30) even know what a 'PHS' is, not to mention an alphanumeric pager or 'ポケベル'.

  14. Gianni said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    I wish I could KEITAI this phone to Galapagos.

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