How many of you have ever heard of the Japanese word “wasei eigo?” A direct translation into English would be “Japanese-made English,” but put more simply the word refers to English words that, after a little tampering, have been adopted into the modern Japanese lexicon and used on an everyday basis. Despite having their origins in English, “wasei eigo” words often have quite different meanings to those on which they are based. Consequently, Japanese visitors to English-speaking countries using terms like “baby car” and “key holder” — words that are thought to be “English” in Japan — are often met with raised eyebrows and blank stares from native English speakers.
So come with us now as we look at the top 20 “wasei” English words that cause Japanese people trouble when they break them out while abroad.
It perhaps doesn’t help that the majority of these words, when pronounced in “katakana English” and with a Japanese accent, sound even further removed from their English originals, but we’re sure you’ll agree that even in their written form some of them are bound to cause confusion in English-speaking countries. The Japanese pronunciations are written in italics alongside each word.
1. Salary man, OL (Office Lady) - sararii man
During a trip abroad, it is not unusual to be asked about one’s occupation. Many Japanese believe that the word salary man is used as an everyday English word referring to men who work in an office. It is also believed that OL refers to women working in the same environment. However, while such connotations are true within Japan, in an English-speaking country, the words office worker are used regardless of the sex. While salary man may feel natural from a Japanese speaker’s perspective, in an English-speaking country the same word defines a male worker who is in receipt of a salary.
2. Key holder - kii horuda
When visiting a tourist attraction, it is common to buy a key ring, or key chain as a souvenir. However, the Japanese English expression for these trinkets is key holder. The term key holder itself is not completely incomprehensible; however the most natural would obviously be key ring or key chain.
3. Cooler - kura
In Japan, the English air conditioner is referred to as cooler. In the U.S., this word may well be confused with a refrigerator in a shop or store. In the UK, meanwhile, telling hotel staff that the kura is broken would result in polite smiles at best.
4. Gasoline stand - gasoriin sutando
Particularly for those using a rental car, knowing where to be able to refill your gas tank is essential. However in Japan, the term gasoline stand is used in place of the terms gas station in the U.S., or filling station or petrol station in the UK, Australia and Singapore. While gasoline stand is not entirely incomprehensible, it is likely to require a moment’s thought on the part of the listener.
5. Free size - furii saizu
In Japan, the phrase free size is one, which refers to clothing that doesn’t adhere to a specific measurement but is rather designed for anyone regardless of his or her body size. In an English-speaking country, the phrase most frequently used is one size fits all. In this sense, when asking a question, the most natural form would be Is this one-size-fits-all?
6. Baby car - bebii kaa
The term baby car is also a Japanese English phrase and refers to the English words stroller, pushchair or baby carriage; i.e. the thing you push a baby around in that looks sort of like a car.
7. Potato fry - poteto furai
In Japan, potato fry is a food that is an accompaniment to a hamburger or a snack to be eaten with alcohol. However, in English, the same phrase is referred to as French fries (U.S.) or chips (UK).
8. Morning call - moningu koru
The phrase morning call is one which defines being woken up by the hotel staff at your preferred time. Morning call is a phrase that has taken root in Japanese society; nevertheless the phrase used abroad carrying the same meaning and used much more commonly is wake-up call. Hopefully, hotel staff would be able to put two and two together, though and realize that a call in the morning could mean only one thing.
9. Hotel front - furonto
When staying at a hotel, asking “Where is the front?” is another phrase that Japanese people often use. This does, in fact, refer to the front desk or hotel reception.
10. Guard man - gado man
The security guard who stands in front of a high-class building or bank is referred to as “guard man” in Japanese English.
11. Claim - kuremu
Making a complaint against someone or something is known in Japanese English simply as a claim; however among native English speakers the word complaint is used. For example, a Japanese person might say that they would like to “make a claim” to the hotel or restaurant manager.
12. Mug cup - magu kappu
Although not completely incomprehensible, the addition of the word cup at the end of mug seems rather unnatural. Japanese use this word to distinguish between a mug and a small (non-wine) glass or tumbler which, somewhat confusingly, they refer to as a cup, or “koppu”.
13. Laptop - noto pasokon
The advances in portable computers in recent years has resulted in a natural increase in travelers bringing their laptops with them abroad. The word for laptop computer in Japanese English is Noto pasokon which is an abbreviation of notebook personal computer. Of all the Japanese English words we’ve looked at so far, this is perhaps the one that is most strikingly different to its original English counterpart.
14. Order made - ooda meido
The Japanese English phrase order made is one that refers to the English made-to-order, or custom made.
15. Jet coaster - jetto kosuta
This is a term that refers to arguably the most popular attraction at theme parks, the roller coaster. Still, we suppose they do feel like being strapped to a jet…
16. Take out - teiku auto
Depending on the part of the world you’re in, asking for a take out please at a restaurant or fast food establishment could be met with some puzzled looks. This is the term that, along with the pre-existing and perfectly decent Japanese phrase 「持ち帰り」 mochikaeri, is used by Japanese people to refer to “to go” (U.S.) or “take away” (UK) food, often failing to convey the same message when used in English-speaking countries.
17. Coin laundry - koin randorii
In Japan the phrase coin laundry is used to refer to what is commonly known abroad as laundromat or launderette.
18. Game center - gemu senta
Another phrase which is quite different to that used among native English speakers is game center, referring to video arcades. Although not completely incomprehensible using this term abroad could create some confusion.
19. Consent - konsento
This is a weird one. The English power outlet (U.S.) or plug socket (UK) is known in Japan as a konsento, making this one of the most incomprehensible “wase eigo” words out there. If a Japanese speaker asks you where the konsento is, they’re not asking for permission to do something.
20. Decoration cake - dekorehshon keki
Decoration cake is a combination of the words decoration and cake which in Japan suggests a cake with lots of decoration. The phrase often used abroad is fancy cake or simply really pretty cakes. But there again, what cake doesn’t look incredible?
Well there you have it—20 Japanese-English words that leave many Japanese dazed and confused when they try to use them abroad. Having reading the above, what were you’re impressions of the word differences? Were there some words that were more, or perhaps less comprehensible than suggested above? Let us know what you think!