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13 English Words You Didn’t Know Have an Origin in Chinese, Arabic, or Japanese — Part 3

September 5, 2013

In the previous blog series, we introduced English words that have an origin in Chinese and English words that have an origin in Arabic. This week, let's explore some other words derived from Japanese, shall we?


via Japanese 大官, lit. high official; or 大君, lit. great nobleman

Since the worldwide economic recession, the notion of the greedy capitalist has reemerged as a favorite narrative in the American consciousness.  The term ‘tycoon’ came to mostly refer to business people (like a real estate tycoon) after World War I.  Prior to that time, success in entrepreneurship was largely seen as a positive thing, symbolizing hard work and achievement of the American dream.  Originally, this term was introduced to English speakers in the mid-1800s, as certain Japanese officials referred to the shogun as “tycoon” to connote that he was actually more important than the emperor.  The veneration of some other entity above the law, then, is invoked when we refer to tycoons that at times seem to have Congress in their pocketbooks.


(from 葛 or クズ kuzu) A climbing vine found in the southeastern US, which is native to Japan and southeastern China

Skipping ahead to the World War II, the United States began working on the Federal Interstate Highway system, largely in order to coordinate wartime factory production and logistics over an enormous country. As the war machine turned, engineers from the Army Corps in charge of the project noticed that all of the construction was causing erosion and thus risking the stability of the highways, because of flooding and other structural issues (not to mention ecological hazards!).  Kudzu was planted along the roadsides because it grows so quickly and holds the soil in place.  Now famous as an invasive pest to gardeners from Florida to Minnesota, the hitherto unknown Asian plant has become an all-too-everyday part of the lives of Americans.


数独 sūdoku  listen (help·info), a number placement puzzle, also known as Number Place in the United States

Speaking of the everyday lives of Americans, Sudoku puzzles have supplanted crossword puzzles as perhaps the most popular mind-stretching paper and pencil games in the United States.  Almost every newspaper with a crossword now has a Sudoku to go right along with it.


旨味 or うま味, the taste sensation produced by some condiments such as monosodium glutamate; a basic flavor in sea weed (昆布 kombu)

Over the last 10-15 years, the popularity of cooking shows and food competitions has skyrocketed.  The average American is much more likely to find sea urchins on a restaurant menu than she was just a few years ago.  For years, scientists had held that the human tongue had four types of taste buds: bitter, sweet, salty, and sour.  Thanks in large part to the Japanese, a new flavor ‘umami’ describes a savory or meaty flavor that is scientifically distinct from the other four.  Would scientists have made this ‘discovery’ had the knowledge not already been overt in the language of another culture?  It seems Japanese chefs had discovered this culinary truth a long time ago!  The word umami is thrown around on food television now as a matter of course, and even casual fans of such programs are now likely to describe their own dishes with the word.