Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Gairaigo 外来語

In Japanese, a gairaigo 外来語 is a type of loan-word. Not all words loaned to Japanese are called gairaigo. In particular, Chinese loan-words are not gairaigo. One of its synonyms, yougo 洋語, would imply it refers only to "western words," that is, words from outside of Asia.

The kanji of gairaigo 外来語 are literally "outside-coming word," the very definition of loan-word. But it's better to think of it like the term gaijin 外人, that is, it doesn't apply to China and Korea for some reason.

Because normally Japanese is written vertically, and the gairaigo usually come from languages written horizontally, the term yokomoji 横文字, literally "horizontal letters," is also synonymous with the foreign words.


Most of the time, the gairaigo come from the English language. The term may also refer to words coming from other languages like French, German, etc. but it's mostly English.

The main reason for this is that foods, fads, products, services, etc. from America when imported to Japan get their names loaned from the English. For example:
  • aisu kuriimu アイスクリーム
    Ice cream.
  • keeki ケーキ
  • koohii コーヒー
  • furaido chikin フライドチキン
    Fried chicken.
  • suupaamaaketto スーパーマーケット
  • robotto ロボット
  • animeshon アニメション
  • intaanetto インターネット
  • burogu ブログ
  • bideo ビデオ

This even happens with holidays and customs.
  • kurisumasu クリスマス
  • merii kurisumasu メリークリスマス
    Merry Christmas.
  • harowin ハロウィン
  • torikku oa toriito トリック・オア・トリート
    Trick or treat.

And not all of them come from English.
  • arubaito アルバイト
    Part-time job. (German's "arbeit")
  • orugooru オルゴール
    Music box. (Dutch's "orgel")
  • pan パン
    Bread. (Portuguese's "pão")
  • sarada サラダ
    Salad. (Portuguese's "salad")
  • coppu コップ
    Glass (of water, etc.). (Portuguese's "copo")

False Examples

There are some words people think are gairaigo even though they are not.

Notoriously, arigatou 有難う is often said to have come from "obrigado" in Portuguese, because both mean "thank you." This isn't true. It comes from arigatai 有り難い, literally "difficult to exist," referring to acts of kindness, which don't happen so easily.

Another example: neta ネタ, meaning "content," and part of the word for "spoiler" in Japanese, is just the word tane 種, "seed," spelled backwards. (neta ネタ, tane タネ)

Written with Katakana

One difference between gairaigo and Chinese loan-words is that Chinese loan-words can be written with their kanji, since the kanji Japan uses were originally imported from China. Meanwhile, gairaigo are normally written with katakana.

The process by which a foreign word gets written with katakana is sometimes referred to as katakanization. In Japan, the gairaigo are sometimes called "katakana words," or katakanago カタカナ語, because a word written with katakana is often a gairaigo.

Written with Kanji

In rare cases, a gairaigo may be written with kanji despite kanji for the foreign word not existing originally. The kanji used in words that don't really have kanji are called ateji 当て字. Note that, when ateji is used, the kanji meanings rarely make any sense at all, and it's just a game of matching the readings with the katakana. For example:
  • amerika アメリカ
    The US of A.
  • amerika 亜米利加
    The... huh....
    亜 come-after...
    米 rice...
    利加 profit addition!

Gaikougo 外行語

By the way, words like loaned from Japanese to other languages (including English, of course), like tsunami, kimono, bento, manga, anime, etc. are called gaikougo 外行語. (here's a page on it: 外来語と外行語)

This is because gairaigo 外来語 is written written with the kanji for kuru 来る, "to come," so the opposite must be written the kanji for iku 行く, "to go."

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