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Six Essential Japanese-Made English Words ("Wasei-Eigo")


The lexicon of the Japanese language is quite diverse. There is a colorful mixture of Chinese loanwords, borrowings from European languages (mostly from English and Portuguese), and also the so-called "wasei-eigo," which literally means "Japanese-made English words." This is a large category of commonly used expressions that were coined from English and only exist in Japanese. They are not to be confused with loanwords such as "pen" ペン (from the English word "pen") or "pan" パン (meaning "bread," from the Portuguese word "pão"), and they must be carefully distinguished from their "real" English equivalents. Japanese native speakers with no proficiency in English will most probably not understand you if you replace a Japanese-made English word with an original English expression when speaking Japanese. Also, if you happen to be a Japanese-to-English translator, you need to be careful not to fall into the trap of simply transcribing a "wasei-eigo" word in English, since that will most probably result in a confusing and/or unnatural translation.
The list below provides a few typical examples you are very likely to come across in your day-to-day interactions with people in Japan.

1. Claim (クレーム, kurēmu) = complaint

In Japan, you do not make a complaint - you "make a claim." In English, the noun "claim" refers to "an assertion of the truth of something" or "a demand or request for something considered one's due" (source: Oxford Dictionary). While the "wasei-eigo" counterpart preserves the original form (and pronunciation to some extent) of the English word, it conveys an entirely different meaning.

2. Baby car (ベビーカー, bebīkā) = baby carriage

In Japan, baby carriages are referred to as "baby cars." Although this particular "wasei-eigo" expression may strike a native English speaker as unnatural, its meaning should not be too difficult to guess even if you have just started learning the language.

3. Cunning (カンニング, kaningu) = cheating (on a test)

The English adjective "cunning" can mean "having or showing skill in achieving one's ends by deceit or evasion" or also "ingenious" (source: Oxford Dictionary). The Japanese-made English expression "cunning," on the other hand, is used as a noun to denote the act of cheating on a test. Although the shift in meaning is quite drastic, it can be said that the "wasei-eigo" expression keeps some of the original undertone.

4. Salary man (サラリーマン, sararīman) = white-collar worker

This is arguably one of the most commonly used "wasei-eigo" expressions in modern Japanese. At first glance, it may seem like it refers to "a man who earns a salary," but it is in fact used specifically to denote a white-collar male worker. There is also a related expression, "office lady" or "OL," which refers to a female office worker.

5. Mansion (マンション, manshon) = apartment, flat

This expression can be a little confusing when you hear it for the first time, but if a Japanese person tells you they live in a "mansion," they are simply trying to say they live in an apartment.

6. Sharp pencil (シャープペンシル, shāpu penshiru) = mechanical pencil

In Japanese, "sharp pencil" is a term used to refer to a mechanical pencil.

Oxford English Dictionary (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/)
Kotobank (https://kotobank.jp/)