What is Gairaigo and Wasei-Eigo ?

What is Gairaigo and Wasei-Eigo ?
Just how there are many Spanish, French, and German origin words we have adopted into the English language (Critique, Chauffeur, Patio, Fiesta, Angst, Kindergarten) Japanese language also uses words from English that are relatively new and written in Katakana. There’s actually a term for this phenomenon– loan words or in Japanese, “Gairaigo / 外来語”.

Introduction to Approaching Japanese Words With English-Origin

If you’re thinking of learning Japanese but think it will be too difficult, just remember that there are arguably hundreds if not thousands of words with foreign origin that once you get used to the sound will be able to easily predict the meaning in English. For example, even those who don’t have any Japanese language knowledge might be able to guess that san-gu-ra-su (サングラス)is the word sunglesses.

Similarly, the word “jeans” is pronounced jinzu (ジンズ). It gets complicated, however, the the many cases where a different word is used instead, like denimu (denim デニム). They are technically interchangeable, but saying denim instead of jeans or pants is more natural. Those who don’t learn these small details may still be able to get their point across yet risk sounding strange.

Some English origin words in Japanese are very easy and straightforward in their use where context doesn’t need to be considered due to the usage being more or less identical. Some examples of Gairaigo(Wasei-Eigo) are :

  1. クリエイティブ / ku-ri-ei-ti-bu / creative
  2. テーブル / te-bu-ru / table
  3. コーヒー / ko-hi- / coffee
  4. キャリア / kya-ri-a / career

Alternatively, there are words that you may think you know, but the meaning and connotation in Japanese is entirely different that what you’re used to.

Gairaigo(Wasei-Eigo) 1 :ショック / Sho-kku / “Shock”

When you use the word shock in English, it would be acceptable to use it in a situation where you were very surprised, in either a good or bad way. For example, “I was shocked by how many people came”.

In Japanese, Shokku means you are more “in a state of shock” from something that hurt your feelings or disappointed you. For example, “I’m shocked because she rejected me”. This doesn’t mean that he’s surprised that she didn’t like him out of false confidence, just simply he is in a state of shock.

Gairaigo(Wasei-Eigo) 2 : スマート / su-maa-to / “smart”

Although according to context sumaato can mean smart, it can also mean slim and slender. Don’t be surprised if somebody looks at your body concludes in calling you smart!

Gairaigo(Wasei-Eigo) 3 : サービス / saa-bi-su / “service”

In English there are many different meanings that “service” can take on. Typically for words like this with many meanings, Japanese only uses one of them so you have to remember which and ignore the others.

In Japan it’s common for restaurants or hotels to offer something as “sabisu”- meaning complimentary. Different words are used for “the service of a waitress”, so don’t be surprised if you use “sabisu” in a situation like this and nobody has an idea what you mean.

Gairaigo(Wasei-Eigo) 4 : テンション / ten-shon / “tension”

In English if you think of “tension” you picture stress or awkwardness. In Japanese however, it is closer to the English words “excitement” or “energy”. When people say “tenshon takai / テンション高い” literally high “tenshon”, but it means high energy, like somebody who is having fun at a party, dancing and laughing. In English, “high tension” might have close to the opposite meaning, strangely enough.

Gairaigo(Wasei-Eigo) 5 : イメージ/ imee-ji / “image”

The more than “image”, I’d argue that “imeeji”  is much closer in meaning to the words “impression/opinion/vision”. It’s common for a Japanese person to use this word in statements such as “My image of Canada is to be cold”. This sort of makes sense and one could most likely figure it out with context, but nevertheless the meaning is slightly tricky.

On food packaging, often it will be written “ 写真はイメージです” (Shashin wa imeji desu) meaning literally “The photo is an image”, which is kind of redundant and funny in English, but makes sense in japanese, proving there is indeed a difference in meaning.

The next category is words that are inspired by English let’s say, where it kind of makes sense but no English speaker would be able to understand what it means. There are many of these but here are just a few examples.

Gairaigo(Wasei-Eigo) 6 : コンセント/ kon-sen-to / Consent

This is referring to electrical outlets in the wall. The origin is from “concentric plug”, but nobody would be able to guess that from hearing the word.

Gairaigo(Wasei-Eigo) 7 : リモコン/ ri-mo-kon / remote control

It makes a lot of sense, but at first it would be tricky to understand how “rimokon” is the equivalent of “remote”, with both originating from remote control and “remo-to kontoro-ru”.

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