10 “Wasei-eigo” Words That Don’t Quite Mean What They Mean in English

So today’s post is going to be ENTIRELY a Japanese lesson. I would like to introduce you to a subset of “Katakana-go” – wasei-eigo. Otherwise known as Japanese words that are based in English but are really just Japanese.

In order to understand this list, you have to know a little bit about loan words in Japanese. While most languages have loan words, only English and Japanese take it to this extreme. Since English is a world lingua franca (see?), the need for loan words like mesa, siesta, and deja vu has diminished dramatically. However Japan is still going strong, picking up words like a black sweater picks up lint.

For example, two summers ago I was attempting to describe one-day contacts. So I went through the whole spiel, only to have my teacher nod with recognition “Oh, you mean ワンディコンタクト.” One day contact in Japanese is… one day contact. Great.

However there are some words that are very specifically Japanese, but are dressed in the trappings of English (or French, Dutch, German, Portuguese….), thus making it so that when these words are used it’s kind of hard to know what the person is talking about, and THEY assume the words came from English so you should know. Now introducing my favorite “Wasei Eigo” that I have run across during my time here.

1 . Idol (アイドル)

This one originally did not make the list. However a couple weeks back I went to my friends talk on feminism and the media, and I realized while describing something that America doesn’t have idols. Like yes, we have American Idol, and we have a similar concept, and the word is technically English. But the manufacturing idol industry doesn’t really exist.

Not to mention the fact that if you had mentioned “idols” to me before I started studying Japanese and Japan, I would have probably assumed you meant religious idols. And let’s just say that the Virgin Mary and AKB48 have very little in common.

2. Mansion (マンション)

If a friend says that they just moved into a mansion in the US, I am assuming that they are working for Google in Idaho – a high salary with a lot of cheap surrounding land so that they can make their ostentatious display of wealth. However, Mansions in Japan refer to something that looks like this:

Thank you, Furo-Kensetsu, for creating this wonderful photo.

Yeah, its just a normal apartment. The building construction is a little different, they tend to be newer, and are maybe a little more condo-like then your normal loan word, アパート (apartment,) but they are still… apartments. #disappoint.

3. Barrier Free(バリアフリー)

I had to learn this word while I was translating. As anyone who is learning Japanese (from English, at least) knows, sometimes you just have to sound out a word until you get it. バリアフリー. Ba. Ri. A. Fu. Ri. Barrier Free. …Barrier free? What the heck?

As it turns out, this is is the term for handicap-accessible construction. So ICU is working to become more “barrier free” for its students. Wellesley pays fines for not being “barrier free.”

In context it kind of makes sense, but also definitely not what I thought it meant. I was thinking more… metaphysical barriers to, for example, hiring. Not literal barrier like stairs.

4. Kickout

I already touched on this one in a previous post, but I have had to explain it several times since then. Kickout is a kickout, but for good reasons, not bad – more like a going away party then a “get out of our sight” party. Although I am sure the two coincide for some people…

5. Salaryman (or OL) (サラリーマン・オエル)

This is a pretty ubiquitous term, and yet not one that is really English. If you have one of those parents (or are one of those people,) who work a mysterious office job, you’d normally be described as a businessman/person. Or someone who works in an office.

In Japan, and Japanese, this lead to the creation of the term “Salaryman,” and its female counter part “OL” (office lady.) I mean… I guess these people DO draw salaries. But it seems a little strange to describe them by the fact that they are men who are working. Or ladies in an office. But salaryman also describes a very specific type of man who works for a salary – one who wears those black suits with the white shirts, leaves early, comes back late, complete with optional pit stop at an izakaya.

This, like Idol, is a term that technically exists in English, and technically makes kind of sense but also not really. That is the beauty of wasei eigo.

6. Viking Lunch (バイキングランチ)

So I have seen these signs around town, and it never really occurred to me to question them, until I was walking with a friend who was practicing their katakana and they said “Biking lunch? What’s that?”

As you know, the V and the B sounds in Japanese basically don’t exist, in a way that is similar to Spanish. So Viking and Biking sound exactly the same. When I opened my mouth to answer his question I realized I actually had no idea what a Viking Lunch was. As it turns out it is a ….


That’s it.

7. Hotchkiss(ホチキス)

Prior to studying Japanese, I only know Hotchkiss as a name. And a gun, from like World War I. Then I asked to borrow a stapler from my teacher. She explained that it was called a “Hochi-kiss.”

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the stapler wasn’t called that because it “kissed” the paper, but because the first people to bring staplers to Japan were the British company “Hotchkiss.” And so the name just stuck, kind of like Xerox and Kleenex.

8. Cunning (カニング)

This is an interesting one. In English, a person who is cunning is tricky, deceitful, and smart. This isn’t always a malevolent term. In Japanese it means… cheating. So you カニングする. To do cunning = to cheat.

9. Guts Pose(ガッツポーズ)

I just like this one. It is the term for when you clench your fists and say “Yes!”, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, always in victory.


She isn’t doing it right. Needs more emotion.

I don’t actually think there is a word for this in English, but you’d definitely get some strange looks if you said “I did my guts pose when I found out I got that job.”

10. Magic Tape(マジックテープ)

I found out in class on Thursday that not all words work in Katakana. I was trying to explain that Velcro was a byproduct of space exploration. So I said berukuro. My teacher just stared at my blankly. Luckily a one of the people in my class was wearing velcro shoes, and pulled them as an example.

The conversation moved on, and out of curiosity I googled what Velcro was in Japanese. It’s called magic tape. Which, if you think about it, is pretty darn accurate.


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