Source: Visual Anthropology of Japan
Source: Gaijin Pot
As learners explore the weird and wonderful world of katakana words, it can easily lead to a false sense of confidence. After struggling to awkwardly pronounce yet another menu item that is simply English (or a familiar European language), you might feel like you don’t even need to bother studying them.
But with technology and social media, increasingly stranger kana have started to appear that form a new and unique category. These are the kind of katakana taken from other languages where the original meaning has been changed to something uniquely Japanese.
One of the most common examples is the verb サボる (not coming to class). Like most learners that encounter this weird mixture of katakana and hiragana, I was surprised to learn that this word was connected to the French word “sabotage.”
When the word サボる first entered the Japanese language, it was connected with the power plays during the labor disputes of the liberalizing Taisho era (1912-26) and as a result, had something like its original meaning back then.
It wasn’t until students started to use similar tactics to these labor disputes (by walking out of class and organizing protests) for the verb to begin to take on its current meaning: to play hooky from school.
One of my favorite word origins has always been シャープペンシル (a mechanical pencil). In this case, the origin was the original pencil, which, in order to make its use as easy-to-understand as possible, was called the Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil (fancy!). Obviously, this mouthful was too much for most Japanese people and so the pencil was abbreviated to シャープペンシル.
While the origins of サボる and シャープペンシル are well-documented, elsewhere kana sources can be so obscure that researching it can feel like digging through Game of Thrones fan theories. An example of this is マンネリカップル …continue reading