How the Japanese chop up English

By Alex Case

One of the most characteristic, interesting and tricky-to-understand ways in which the Japanese use English words and expressions in their own language is to shorten them in ways that are not common elsewhere. Some of these have later come back into international English, such as anime (short for animation) and karaoke (oke being short for orchestra). Others, such as ama (short for amateur) and u car (yuu kaa, short for used car) are likely to leave someone stumped the first time they hear them- including often older Japanese! Then there is the extension of that practice into brand names like Starbu (sutaba – Starbucks) and Mac/ MacDo (maku or makudo – MacDonald’s), and even famous people’s names such as Jimi Hen (Jimi Hendriks).

Luckily, the ways in which these shortened forms are produced and used is quite systematic, and people who get used to them often have difficulty switching back to the longer English versions of Japanese abbreviations like conveni (konbini, short for convenience store). Obviously, this is much more of an issue with Japanese students who are trying to use English outside their own country and assume that defla (defure – short for deflation) will be understood because it comes from English, or may often be totally unaware of the longer English form. This is an even more important point to look at in class when what they are trying to say is a shortening of an expression which doesn’t actually exist in English but is just “made in Japan” from English words, such as sha pen (shaa pen, short for sharp pencil – automatic pencil/ mechanical pencil). As I have written another whole article on this topic (see list of links below), I’ve just mixed those into the categories I have used below rather than dealt with them separately. For example, the first category below is full of these abbreviations that are completely “made in Japan”!

Different ways in which the Japanese shorten English words and expressions

Some of these expressions are made in the normal English way of taking the first letter of each word:

AV (ei bii) – short for both audio visual and adult video (porn)

AV model (ei bii moderu, short for adult video model) – porn actress

BGM (bii jii emu) – background music, a proper genre in Japan

BS (bii esu, short for broadcast satellite) – satellite television

DM (dii emu, short for direct mail) – junk mail (old fashioned through the door stuff)

DV (dii bii) – domestic violence

LL (eru eru) – XL

NG (enu jii, short for no good) – opposite of OK

OL (oo eru, short for office lady) – female equivalent of salaryman, but a bit patronising

PV (pii bii, from promotion video) – music video

RV (aaru bui, short for recreation vehicle) – SUV

SF (esu efu) – science fiction (some real enthusiasts use SF in English, but sci fi is much more common)

SL (esu eru, short for steam locomotive) – steam train

The Japanese also sometimes use English letters to represent single words, which is quite rare in English:

L (eru) – large (clothing size)

M (emu/ emu saizu) – medium (size in clothes)

S (esu) – small (size, for clothing)

In slang, this also extends to using English letters to represent Japanese words, e.g. H (etchi, short for hentai) for horny or perverted.

More commonly, the English word is shortened to the first couple of syllables:

accel (akuseru) – accelerator

alumi (arumi) – aluminium

apart (apaato) – (cheap, low rise, wooden) apartment

appo (apo) – appointment/ arrangement

automa (ootome) – automation

brassie (buraja, short for brassiere) – bra

buil (biru) – (office) building

centi (senchi) – centimetre

chara (kyara) – (cartoon) character

cloak (kurooku) – cloakroom

compe (konpe) – competition

conne (kone) – connections (e.g. old school tie)

conserva (konsaba) – conservative

correspond (korepon) – correspondence

defl (defure) – deflation

dia (daiya, short for diagram) – train timetable

dia (daiya) – diamond

doll (doru) – dollar

ex (ekisu) – extract/ essence (used in cooking)

free (furii) – freelance/ freelancer

guara (gyara) – guarantee

handi – (golf) handicap

handkerchi (hankachi) –handkerchief

hard (haado) – hardware/ electronic goods

illust (irasuto) – illustrated/ illustration

infl (infure) – inflation

infra (infura) – infrastructure

les (rezu) – lesbian

loc (roke) – location (of filming)

mecha (meka) – mechanical

milli – millimetre or milligrams

mini – miniskirt

nega – (photo) negative

perma (paama, short for permanent) – perm

presen (purezen) – presentation

punc (panku) – puncture

rehabili (rihabiri) – (physical) rehabilitation

roas (short for roast) – pork loin/ sirloin, like a kind of ham

sado (sado) – sadism

soft (sofuto) – software

st (suto) –strike, meaning industrial action

super (suupaa) – supermarket

televi (terebi) – television

text (tekisto) – textbook

Tupper (tappaa) – short for Tupperware

volley (baree) – volleyball (it also has the usual meaning in football)

There are also a few where it is the first syllables which are eliminated:

bian – lesbian (from insider slang, but becoming more well-known)

form (hoomu) – platform

shade (sheido) – lampshade

neck (nekku) – bottleneck

Fairly often, whole words are missed out in Japanese:

cleaning (kuriiningu) – dry cleaning/ house cleaning service

clip (kurippu) – paper clip

dryer (doraiyaa) – hair dryer

finder (faindaa) – view finder

front (furonto, short for front desk) – hotel reception

ham egg (hamu eggu) – ham and eggs

ice (aisu) – ice cream

living (ribingu) – living room

machine (mishin) – sewing machine

magic (majikku, short for magic pen) – (permanent) marker

make (meiku) – make up

morning (mooningu) – morning coat

no make (no meiku, short for no make-up) – not wearing make up

objet (obuje) – objet d’art

punch (panchi) – hole punch, and punch with fist

range (renji, short for cooking range) – kitchen stove

share (shea) – market share

short cut (shooto kato) – short hair cut

stand (sutando, short for stand lamp) – a small lamp

wiper (waipaa) – windscreen wipers

Other times the words that remain are also shortened:

agit (ajito, short for agitating point) – hiding place/ meeting place (e.g. a café) for revolutionaries

April Fool (eepuriru fuuru) – April Fool’s Day

conveni (konbini) – convenience store

depart (depaato) – department store

gird (gaado) – girder bridge

mini pat (mini pato, short for mini patrol car) – small police car

off reco (ofu reko) – off the record

picke (pike) – picket line

regi (reji) – cash register

Then there are expressions made from the beginnings of two or more words, in the same way that sci-fi was created from science fiction. This is quite rare in English but very common in Japanese, as it is also the way that short forms of compounds based on Chinese symbols (kanji) are written:

Ame foot (ame fuuto) – American football

aro fo – around forty (years old)

auto bi (ootobai, from automatic bike) – motorbike

ba u (be a, short for base up) – pay raise

caba clu (kyaba kura, short for cabaret club) – a kind of hostess club

en sto (en suto, short for engine stop) – stalling a car

fami com (fami kon, short for family computer) – video game system

gen st (zene suto) – general strike

hun st (han suto) – hunger strike

jea pan (jii pan, short for jean pants) – jeans

mail ad (meru ado) – email address

note perso com (nooto paso kon, short for note personal computer) – laptop/ notebook

remo con (rimo kon) – remote control

sex hara (seku hara) – sexual harassment

sub man (sabu mane, short for sub manager) – assistant manager

trai pan (tore pan, short for training pants) – tracksuit trousers

wor pro (waa puro) – word processor

In other cases just one of the two words are shortened:

alumi foil (arumi hoiru) -aluminium foil

ball pen (booru pen) – ballpoint pen

body buil (bodii biru) – short for body building

condense milk (kondensu miruku) – condensed milk

engage ring (engeiji ringu) – engagement ring

happy end (happii endo) – happy ending

high heel- high heels/ high heeled shoes

lady first (reidi faasuto) – ladies first

le guards (le gaasu, short for leg guards) – shin pads

mash potato (masshu poteto) – mashed potatoes

mass comm (masu komi) – mass communications

mass pro (masu puro) – mass production

multi talent (maruchi tarento) – multi talented

multi task (maruchi tasku) – multi tasking

off limit (ofu rimitto) – off limits

office hour (ofisu awaa) – office hours

old fashion (oorudo fasshon) – old fashioned

one side game (wan saido geemu) – one-sided game

pat car (pato kaa) – patrol car

scramble egg (sukuramburu) – scrambled eggs

skate rink (sukeeto rinku) – skating rink

sunglass (sangurasu) – sunglasses

table manner (teburu manaa) – table manners

time up (taimu appu) – time’s up

Valentine Day (barentain dei) – Valentine’s day

Y shirt (wai shatsu, short for ‘white shirt’) – business shirt/ dress shirt

Some of the examples above can be particularly confusing for native speakers as the shortened form in Japanese is the same as or similar to another word or expression in English:

apart (apaato) – (cheap, low rise, wooden) apartment in Japanese/ separate in English

April Fool (eepuriru fuuru) – April Fool’s Day in Japanese/ a person who is tricked on that day in English

BS (bii esu, short for broadcast satellite) – satellite television in Japanese/ bullshit in English

cleaning (kuriiningu) – dry cleaning or house cleaning in Japanese/ more general in English

clip (kurippu) – paperclip in English/ more general, e.g. part of gun, in English

cloak (kurooku) – cloakroom in Japanese/ a cape in English

depart (depaato) – department store in Japanese (n)/ leave in English (v)

dryer (doraiyaa) – hair dryer in Japanese/ more general but usually tumble dryer in English

ex (ekisu) – extract or essence in Japanese/ ex -boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, ex-husband or ex-wife in English

form (hoomu) – platform in English/ application form etc in English

free (furii) – freelance or freelancer in Japanese/ adjective of freedom in English

front (furonto, short for front desk) – hotel reception in Japanese/ the opposite of rear in English

handi/ handy – golf handicap in Japanese/ useful in English

hard (haado) – hardware in Japanese (n)/ the opposite of soft in English (adj)

ice (aisu) – ice cream in Japanese/ frozen water in English

kilo (kiro) – both kilometre and kilogramme in Japanese/ only the latter in English

living (ribingu) – living room in Japanese/ alive in English

magic (majikku, short for magic pen) – permanent marker in Japanese/ the noun of magical in English, e.g. Harry Potter

make (meiku) – make up in Japanese/ produce in English

morning (mooningu) – morning coat in Japanese/ the first half of the day in English

range (renji, short for cooking range) – kitchen stove in Japanese/ broad selection in English

punch (panchi) – hole punch and boxing in Japanese/ only the latter in English

shade (sheido) – lampshade in Japanese/ a place out of the sun in English

share (shea) – market share in Japanese/ stock in English

soft (sofuto) – software or soft ice cream in Japanese (n)/ the opposite of hard in English (adj)

spell (superu) – spelling in Japanese/ some magic or a short period in English

stand (sutando, short for stand lamp) – a small lamp in Japanese/ something that holds something up, e.g. for display, in English

super (suupaa) – supermarket in Japanese (n)/ wonderful in English (adj)

text (tekisto) – textbook in Japanese/ more general in English

volley (baree) – volleyball or hitting the ball without it touching the ground in Japanese/ only the latter meaning in English

Of these, the ones that are most likely to cause confusion are share, text, stand, ice, form and free. Depart can also cause misunderstandings, but more with department in a company than with the verb to depart.

Sometimes these words and expressions do have different short forms in British and/ or American English, and teaching these can be a good way to improve students’ comprehension and to give them an easy to think of options when they are trying to avoid Japlish abbreviations – often more effective than asking them to stick to the longer form:

a flat for a puncture

biro for ballpoint pen

bucks for dollar

cop car for police car

corner shop for convenience store

do my face for make up

gas pedal for accelerator

shades for sunglasses

the zapper for a remote control

tracky bottoms for tracksuit trousers (training pants in Japanese)

TV/ telly/ the box for television

Other common difficulties for Japanese speakers learning English and English speakers learning Japanese which are hopefully also of general linguistic interest are dealt with in these other articles of mine on the topic of wasei eigo/ Japlish/ Japanese English/ Engrish:

Pronunciation changes in Japanese English

How Japanese English works (overview)

Written by Alex Case for October 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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