Why do the Japanese call a mummy “miira”?

I’d been wondering this for a while because many guides to foreign borrowings into Japanese list “miira” as coming from Portuguese, but the Portuguese for (Egyptian etc) mummy is “mumia”, seemingly unconnected to “miira”. According to a typically fascinating post on the great Language Log blog, the totally unexpected answer is:

“The Japanese word for “mummy” is mīra ミイラ (“myrrh”) because, when the Portuguese were selling Egyptian mummies to the Japanese as medicine, they often mentioned myrrh as one of the preservatives, and the Japanese took the part for the whole.”

However, as a couple of commenters noticed, that just leads to another even more fascinating question:

“Can you direct me to an article about how (and why) the Portuguese sold mummies to the Japanese?”



  1. crella said,

    January 7, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Fascinating!! I never knew that it came from ‘myrrh’.

    • nuruk said,

      March 9, 2015 at 3:46 am

      Same! What a crazy connection! I live in Korea and they use the same word here.

  2. T2 said,

    March 30, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Mummies were sold for medical purposes not only in Japan but in many other countries. You’ll probably find more on it if you search on the Internet under “Mummia” and “Mummy powder”.
    The mummies would be crushed into powders and taken as medicine, so that is probably the reason the Portuguese sold the mummies.
    As to how, i’m not sure, but i’m guessing they got hold of them through not very legitimate means since you’ll have to violate a tomb to get hold of a mummy.

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