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Lost In Translation


Some may disagree, but when studying for the JLPT many years back, I found that the katakana section of the test to be most difficult. Not kanji, not vocabulary, not grammar, not reading comprehension. The way my Japanese acquaintances see it, is that because I'm a foreigner, katakana must be a piece of cake. How wrong they are! That is because katakana words, loanwords, come from many different languages, and many have become lost in translation!

Give this mini test a try, and see how you fare. There are 14 in all. Enjoy, and hope you can learn something new.

1.オーライ(oh-rai) is called when someone drives in reverse, what does it mean?

2.カンニング (kanningu) is "cunning", but with Japanese intonation it means...?

3.エキス (ekisu) pops up with supplements or aromatherapy. Like vanilla...?

4.テンション (tenshon) is "tension", but Japanese use it to mean...?

5.A power outlet is called a (konsento) コンセント, what does that refer to?

6.Why is a mechanical pencil called a (sha-pen) シャーペン?

7.Why are staplers called (hocchikisu) ホッチキス?

8.Why are commercials called  (C.M.) シーエム?

9.Why is an all-you-can-eat buffet called (viking) ヴァイキング?

10.Deep-friend (katsu) カツ is delicious over rice, but what's its origin word?

11.(Calpis) カルピス is a milky soft drink, but what's its origin? No, it's not "Cow Piss".

12.Unfortunately, pants in Japanese are called (zubon) ズボン, what language is that?

13.Bread is called (pan) パン in Japanese, but what language is it from?

14.A Halloween mummy is called a (miira) ミイラ, why is that?

Scroll down for answers.

1.a(ll) righ(t)

2.To cheat (on a test)



5.concent(ric plug)

Apparently plugs were round in early 20th century, which may be where the word comes from.

6.shar(p) pen(cil)

The company that popularized mechanical pencils in Japan was the Sharp Corporation.


Again, a name, this time for both the company and the inventor, somehow it took root in Japan.

8.Commercial Message

I always wondered what the M stood for...

9.From the restaurant "Imperial Viking" in the Imperial Hotel, which was the first restaurant in Japan to serve buffet-style meals and inspired by the 1958 American film The Vikings.


... Really?... + ?? ??? (sar)pis (Sanskrit for "tastes good")


13.Well apparently it's a mistranslation of the old French word for petticoat, jupon, which is worn under a dress...oops.


Remember the three wise men with their frankincense and myrrh?

Apparently myrrh is an ancient preservative, also used for mummification.

Originally a Hebrew word.

Please share other interesting loanwords in the comments, and let us know your score!

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