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English Owes Much to Japanese Words


FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2016 photo, a student demonstrates how emojis are used during a research session on the Kansas State University campus in Olathe, Kan.

In the past several hundred years, English has borrowed words and terms from other languages.

And with those words, history and culture are imported. Some words are obvious, such as rendezvous from French. The word can be used as a noun or verb to suggest a meeting. But where do words like skosh, honcho, tycoon and, most recently, emoji, come from?

Emoji

In the late 1990s, Japanese computer programmer Shigetaku Kurita invented “emoji”* -- images, icons and symbols that express meaning without words, not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In Japanese, the word emoji means “pictograph” and comes from the word e meaning “picture” and moji, meaning “letter” or “character.”

The similarity to the English word “emotion” is only by chance.

Skosh

Another word the English language borrowed from Japanese is skosh.

The English meaning of skosh is “a small amount.” The word is used informally in English.

It comes from the Japanese word sukoshi, which means the same thing. In Japanese, sukoshi can also mean “a few,” “a little" or "some." Notice the similarity between the English and Japanese pronunciations: skosh and sukoshi ((skoh-shee)).

American soldiers picked up the term sukoshi while stationed in Japan after World War II. They brought it back to the United States in the 1950s.

While the English word is a noun, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that, sometimes we also use the word as an adverb, such as in the example, “I’m a skosh hungry.” In other words: "I'm a little bit hungry."

Honcho

Honcho, another word borrowed from Japanese, also came into use around World War II.

In English, honcho means "person in charge.” In Japanese, the word is hancho. It means "squad leader" and comes from two words: han meaning “squad" and cho meaning "head" or "chief."

American service personnel learned the word when they were Japanese prisoners-of-war and brought it back to the U.S.

Sometimes, native English speakers say "head honcho." That is redundant.

Tycoon

In English, tycoon refers to a very wealthy and powerful businessperson. It comes from the Japanese taikun, meaning “great lord or prince.”

In the mid-1800s, the United States was ready to use military power to force Japan to re-open trade relations with the West. Navy officer Commodore Matthew Perry led the negotiations. When he arrived in Japan, he refused to meet with anyone other than the highest official in the empire.

The Japanese presented Perry with their shogun, or general of the Japanese army. But they worried that the English translation would not seem powerful enough. So, they introduced their shogun as taikun.

What Perry – or the West – did not realize was that shoguns had more power than emperors in Japan at the time.

Perry’s negotiations with Japan were successful. And the word tycoon soon became popular in America. It came to mean “top leader.” Tycoon first appeared in print in the U.S. in 1857. Even Abraham Lincoln began to like the word. When he was president, members of his Cabinet nicknamed him tycoon.

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