Japanese words that are dying out: focus on diabetes

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From The Japan Times:

A foray into the realm of Japanese ‘dead words’

Trendy buzzwords tend to be most at risk of dying out as they often reflect ideas and trends that are fleeting.

By Tadasu Takahashi
Staff writer
Oct 31, 2023

Sometimes whole languages go extinct, more often certain words within languages cease to exist as part of the living lexicon.  There are political, demographic, and other socioeconomic reasons why languages disappear.  The reasons why individual words die out are related more to fashion — in culture, science, and similar emotional and intellectual reasons.

Tadasu Takahashi's interesting article provides some specific examples from contemporary Japanese language.

I saw some news recently about the Japan Association for Diabetes Education and Care making the decision to rename 糖尿病 (tōnyōbyō, diabetes). In its place, the association chose something more globally recognizable: ダイアベティス (daiabetisu, diabetes).

While opting for a katakana spelling of the English word isn’t the most creative choice, the reasons for wanting to abandon the old term make sense: Not all diabetics have 糖 (, sugar) in their 尿 (nyō, urine), and some patients find the association with 尿 to be unpleasant and worry about being stigmatized as 不潔 (fuketsu, dirty).

English-speakers learning Japanese may find the new name easy to remember. For Japanese speakers, on the other hand, saying ダイアベティス instead of 糖尿病 will take some getting used to — the diabetes association is planning to raise awareness of the new name over the course of a year or so.

The word for "diabetes" in Chinese is the same as the Japanese:  tángniàobìng trad. 糖尿病/醣尿病 simpl. 糖尿病 ("sugary urine disease; glycosuria; glycuresis; diabetes mellitus").  It's in all of the Sinitic topolects too, also in Korean (dangnyobyeong 당뇨병).

Talk about rapidly changing language fashions!  When I started going to China in the early eighties, I didn't hear anyone talk about tángniàobìng 糖尿病 ("sugary urine disease; diabetes").  Before that, when I was in Taiwan during the early seventies, I have a vague recollection that I might have heard someone mention it, though I can't recall clearly if I did or not.  Be that as it may, during the eighties, nineties, and first decade of the new millennium, it became increasingly common in conversational Chinese.  By the early teens, tángniàobìng 糖尿病 was a very common topic of conversation, and I saw lots of people injecting themself with insulin.

Incidentally, the first time I encountered the name tángniàobìng 糖尿病 (lit., "sugary urine disease"), I thought it was odd to hear people talk about it openly as having to do with urine, so I sympathize with those who feel that the Sino-Japanese-Korean term is somehow "dirty" and would prefer to use the transliterated English expression.

Finally, to conclude this interlude on the East Asian term for diabetes, my impression is that it was coined by Japanese medical personnel within about the past century and that it was borrowed into Chinese and Korean.  I checked half a dozen dictionaries of borrowings into Chinese, but could not find any conclusive evidence of when it occurred.

Language is dynamic and subject to change over time. The decision to rename diabetes is an example of that process in action, and it got me wondering about other words that have fallen out of favor and disappeared from use. In Japanese, words that fit into this category are known as 死語 (shigo, dead word/language).

The 死 (shi, death) in 死語 may give the term a sense of finality, but when it isn’t being used to refer to a literal “dead language,” it’s understood more broadly as日常的に使われなくなった言葉 (nichijō-teki ni tsukawarenakunatta kotoba, words that are no longer used in everyday life). In short, 死語 are words that are thought of as being out of date or obsolete.

There are a couple of ways a 死語 might emerge. The first is 入れ替わり (irekawari, replacement): A 新語 (shingo, new word) may end up gradually replacing an old one, turning it into a 死語. The terms 背広 (sebiro) and ぶどう酒 (budōshu) help illustrate this point as their more modern counterparts — スーツ (sūtsu, suit) and ワイン (wain, wine), respectively — are now more commonly used in the spoken language. According to a 2015 survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs on word use, 19.8% of respondents said they still use 背広, while only 10.3% said they still use ぶどう酒.

The Sinitic cognate of budōshu ぶどう酒 ("alcoholic drink made from grapes", i.e., "wine") is pútáojiǔ 葡萄酒 where budō ぶどう and pútáo 葡萄 (< Bactrian *bādāwa [“wine”] [130 BC]; compare Persian باده‎ (bâde, “wine”) (Schuessler, 2007; Chmielewski, 1958).

Another path to obsolescence involves a loss of 面白さ (omoshirosa, appeal/interest). This applies primarily to 流行語 (ryūkōgo, buzzwords), which have a short 寿命 (jumyō, life span) to begin with. When a particular term is no longer cool or fun to use due to changes in the social environment, it tends to naturally die out.

You’ll find no shortage of 死語 lists on the internet. Many focus on old 流行語 and emphasize how using such words will make you sound 古臭い (furukusai, old-fashioned) or 時代遅れ (jidai okure, behind the times).

One word I saw on almost every list was ナウい (naui). Apparently, the word was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, and was used to express something 現代的 (gendai-teki, modern) or 流行に乗っている (ryūkō ni notte-iru, on trend/in fashion). As you might have guessed, it borrows from the English word “now” and in a sentence you might use it like this: その考え方ナウいね (sono kangaekata naui ne, that way of thinking is so on trend).

If you come across a word that you find problematic in some way, you can also use 死語 to express an opinion on retiring it. For instance, you could say: あの言葉はもう死語だと思う (Ano kotoba wa mō shigo da to omou, I think that word is already out of date) or あの言葉は死語になればいいと思う (Ano kotoba wa shigo ni nareba ii to omou, I think that word should become obsolete).



Global diabetes rates have soared during the past quarter century.  Is it a disease of the affluent? the poor?  What aspects of diet have an impact on the incidence of diabetes? 

My own perception of what was happening in China during the period when I saw its rates rise precipitously was that it was occurring mostly among those who were well off and were eating foods that were too rich (fatty, oily, sweet).


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. KWillets said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 9:26 am

    Korean also has 포도주 (podoju) and 와인 (wa-in). Due to the climate, it's possible to grow 포도 (table grapes) but no wine grapes except Muscat, so even when visiting my late father-in-law's place in the 포도 capital Yongcheon we would bring imported 와인.

    He did at one point introduce us to a local farmer with a passable Rosé, but for the most part the two markets and the two terms have remained separate.

  2. Wanda said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 11:13 am

    Aww. Diabetes, or really diabetes mellitus, is a disease that was noticed and diagnosed by many ancient cultures, including the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Indians. One of the primary diagnostic criterion was indeed glycosuria, or sugar in the urine. The "mellitus" part of the English name derives from this. (Yes, tasting body fluids used to be an important way of diagnosing disease! Although in India, they just noticed that diabetic urine attracted ants.) 糖尿病 to me is a term that harkens back to this history.

    As a side note, there are other types of diabetes. "Diabetes" was the name that was given to other disorders where you pee a lot. There's a disease called diabetes insipidus, for example, which is a totally different disease. In this disease, you pee a lot, but your pee is clear and, I guess, relatively tasteless. In what we think of as diabetes, diabetes mellitus, you pee a lot, and your pee is sugary.

  3. Thomas said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 11:16 am

    Diabetes mellitus even includes the honey sweetness of the urine passing through the patient into the name of the disease. It comes as no surprise that the more transparent Japanese name went out of fashion. Nonetheless, the name remains similar in its substance.

  4. Wanda said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 11:19 am

    To answer Victor's other question, there are two common types of diabetes mellitus. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder. The incidence of that has not risen. Type 2 diabetes comes from chronic overnourishment and consumption of simple carbohydrates, exacerbated by stress, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, pollution, and many other things. So yes, as societies get better at producing food and distributing it to even the poorest people, rates of type 2 diabetes have shot up enormously.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 1:24 pm

    I'm wondering about who was going around tasting urine to determine it was sweet before there were other ways of detecting it. ¿Or did it attract flies?

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 3:59 pm

    I very much suspect, Chas, that it was those practising medicine at that time. Whilst today’s GPs are unlikely to voluntarily taste a patient’s urine, they have little option but to insert their finger into places which most of us would prefer to avoid when testing for an enlarged prostate gland, and I also suspect that squeamishness was far less common that it is now.

  7. Wanda said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 4:01 pm

    @Chas Belov: Apparently a lot of people, for many centuries?
    – This article https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4707300/ says, "Around the 5th century BC, the famous Indian surgeon Sushruta, in his work Samhita, identified diabetes, by using the term madhumeha (honey-like urine) and pointed out not only the sweet taste of the urine but also its sticky feeling to the touch and its ability to attract the ants (!)"
    – This article: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1876382010000089?via%3Dihub says that the original Chinese term for diabetes was "消渴" (wasting-thirst), that it was described very clearly in the The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, and that identification of sweet urine as a marker for wasting thirst was identified around 600 AD.
    – Avicenna (11th cent) says that if you evaporate diabetic urine, the residue is sweet and sticky.
    – Paracelsus (~1500) generally advised tasting urine as a diagnostic tool.
    – In the late 1700s and early 1800s, there were a number of English doctors who noted that some patients with excessive urine had insipid or bland urine but that most had saccharine urine. One of them wrote of a patient with "limpid, clear, and wonderful sweet water, that tasted as if it has been mixed with honey" so this wasn't just a drop on the tongue!

  8. Chas Belov said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 10:31 pm

    Now I know. Thank you @Philip Taylor and @Wanda.

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 2:28 am

    @KWillets: My impression is that 와인 wain has pretty much displaced 포도주 podoju nowadays as the term for wine, though I insist on using the latter, being a traditionalist. I concede that wain has the advantage of being able to refer to non-grape wines, however, e.g. 복분자 와인 bokbunja wain "black raspberry wine".

    There is no movement to replace 당뇨병 dangnyobyeong that I am aware of, however. The etymology isn't as starkly transparent for Korean speakers, though most can probably figure it out (as English speakers would for medical terms derived from Greek roots).

    A search for 다이아비티스 daiabitiseu, a phonetic rendering of the English name, only turns up the trademarked name of a supplement, or the journal Diabetes; it is not used to refer to the disease itself. The normative spelling according to South Korea's official transcription guidelines for English would be 다이어비티스 daieobitiseu, by the way.

  10. Daniel Barkalow said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 2:39 pm

    My impression is that the rise in type 2 diabetes globally is less to do with whether people are richer or poorer, but rather which foods are cheapest. It used to be that plants that grew nearby and could be eaten with minimal modification were cheap, and these didn't have a ton of simple sugars, whereas now, shelf-stable, calorie-dense foods that can be processed at scale are cheap, and these do have a ton of simple sugars.

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