Why is a turkey called “shichimencho” in Japanese?

… because “seven face bird” is an odd name even for as strange a creature as a turkey. According to a page on the topic on a Japanese site on word origins, it is because the neck looks like it has many different colours, which kind of makes sense. The Xmas edition of The Economist says that the name came from Chinese and spread to Japanese and Korean, though in China it later became “‘fire chicken’ for its face’s tendency to flare up shades of red, white and blue”.

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?”

Why do the Japanese greet each other with “Konnichi wa” (“Today!”)

This was one that really puzzled me in my first couple of years in Japan and then I completely forgot about as it got older. According to Japanzine, it used to be used in longer phrases like “Konnichi wa atsui desu ne” (“It’s hot today today, isn’t it?”, common nowadays as “Kyou wa atsui desu ne”) and just got shortened as time passed.

Japanzine is admittedly not the most academic of sources, but this seems to be fairly common in greetings, as in “Ca va (bien)” in French, so makes sense to me.

Why do the Japanese call sake ‘nihonshu’?

My memory is probably exaggerating, but the way I remember it I arrived in Japan only knowing the words “sake” and “sayonara”, only to find that the Japanese rarely use either in the way I had expected. Still, that’s not as bad as believing my French teacher when he told use that “baiser” means kiss…

“Sake” in fact has two meanings, being the normal way to refer to all alcoholic drinks as well as the famous Japanese rice wine in particular, and is more often used with the former meaning. There is also the only very slightly differently pronounced “sake” that means “salmon”…

To avoid possible misunderstandings, the clearer expression “nihonshu” (“Japanese alcohol” or perhaps “Japanese spirits”) is therefore more often used when talking about Japanese rice wine, though there is also the word “atsukan” for “nihonshu” served hot.

Why do the Japanese pronounce English like katakana?

As well as the obvious reasons (the many consonant sounds which can exist without vowels after them in English but only with vowels in Japanese, use of katakana in teaching English in Japanese schools and language learning materials), it’s recently occurred to me that some of my students are adding the katakana vowel sounds to give themselves thinking time.

I first noticed that some were using a long and intrusive sound even when there is usually a short and almost imperceptible sound in Japanese in situations like final k and final sh. A couple of weeks later I worked out that it was exactly those students who needed time to think of what they were going to say, translate in their heads etc who were adding the most intrusive extra vowel sounds to their English.

Why is Japanese “ken” translated as “prefecture”?

I don’t know why it took me ten years to look up the answer to this nagging question on Wikipedia, because the answer to that question has been waiting for me there:

“The origins of the Western term prefecture being used to describe Japanese subdivisions date from 15th century Portuguese contact with Japan, whereby the word prefeitura was used to very roughly describe Japanese fiefdoms, in Portuguese the original meaning was more analogous to municipalities than provinces. (Reciprocally today, Japanese uses the character ken –  - to refer to Portuguese districts.)”

Why is the Japanese parliament called the Diet?

Not only have I always wondered this, I’ve had my Japanese students asking me. However, only now got round to researching it. I did already know most of this Wikipedia entry:

“The word diet derives from Latin and was a common name for an assembly in medieval Germany. The Meiji constitution was largely based on the form of constitutional monarchy found in nineteenth century Prussia and the new Diet was modeled partly on the German Reichstag…”

but that still leaves open the question of whether foreign commentators invented the expressions (like “bullet train”) or if the Japanese people setting the Diet up chose the description of it in English (the Japanese expression “kokkai” always being used when speaking that language).

In either case, I wonder if they didn’t choose the word “parliament” because they didn’t want it to sound like a real parliament, given the powers of the Emperor and in the case of Westerners perhaps their unwillingness to accept that an Asian country could run a real democracy.

Why do the Japanese say “presentator”?

I’d always assumed what this Japanese site says, that this Japanese version of “presenter” was a made-in-Japan word made to sound like other words like “commentator”. I therefore told a Belgian student of mine to start worrying about picking up Janglish when the word came out of his mouth. However, it turns out he was right when he told me it is used there too. As there are few if any recent borrowings from Dutch into Japanese (though many in much earlier history), it still seems likely that this is just coincidence and it was actually created in Japan.

For much more on Janglish/ Japanglish/ Japanese English/ Japlish, there’s loads more on JapanExplained, or have just updated my full list and made a collection of my favourites on my English teaching blog:

TEFLtastic Janglish dictionary

Janglish which we should all start using

Why are the Japanese so insensitive to swearing in other languages?

In just one week I’ve heard someone saying “Merde” in a NHK programme for primary school kids, seen “Jesus Christ!” coming out a speech bubble on Yamanote line train posters, and become aware of this incredibly profane T-shirt on local station Kanagawa TV. Is it just because there is very little concept on swearing in Japanese, or just the incredible ability of the Japanese to filter out most of what is going on around them, especially text in foreign languages?

Why does cos-play have a (semi-) English name?

It could be because the idea also came from an English speaking country, if this story from a recent edition of the BBC Radio programme Boston Calling is be be believed:

“Some early Japanese fans went to Star Trek conventions, saw them dressing up in the US and brought that back to Japan”

Cos-play is short for “costume play” and in Japanese means any kind of dressing up, unlike its English language use only for anime-related dressing up since it was borrowed (back?) from Japanese.

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