'Tycoon', 'Skosh', & 6 More English Words From Japanese

We may call them borrowings, but we're not giving them back


Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate (1179).

1) a top leader (as in politics)
2) a businessperson of exceptional wealth and power : magnate

Two real estate tycoons—a young New Mexico up-and-comer and an older West Texas powerhouse—are duking it out in the courts over a bungled investment deal that has pitted the former business partners against each other.
— Lauren Villagran, The Albuquerque Journal, 14 June 2016

While tycoon now most often refers to a very wealthy and powerful businessperson, the word has had two other uses in English as well.

When the United States forced Japan to open full commercial and diplomatic relations with the West in 1854, the real ruler of the island nation was the shogun. Officially only a military deputy of the emperor, the shogun—a title shortened from seii-taishōgun, meaning “barbarian-subjugating generalissimo”—stood at the pinnacle of a feudal hierarchy based at Edo (later Tokyo) that effectively controlled the imperial court at Kyoto and ruled the country. Westerners in the initial period of diplomatic relations concluded that the shogun was a sort of secular emperor and the emperor something like the pope. Townsend Harris, the first American consul to Japan, got the idea that the shogun's correct title was taikun, a Japanese borrowing from Middle Chinese elements equivalent to Beijing Chinese “great” and jūn “prince.” This word, in the spelling tycoon, became quite popular in America immediately before and during the Civil War as a colloquialism meaning “top leader” or “potentate.” (John Hay, President Lincoln's personal secretary—and later Secretary of State to Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt—referred to Lincoln as "the Tycoon.") After fading from use for several decades tycoon was revived in 1920s journalism with the narrower sense “a businessman of exceptional wealth and power,” a usage that continues to be part of English.

Definition: a person who is in charge of other people : boss, big shot; also : hotshot

[Mandy Patinkin is] one of the most versatile talents in show business, best known at the moment as CIA head honcho Saul Berenson on the TV hit Homeland….
— Karen Fricker, The Toronto Star (thestar.com), 12 June 2016

Honcho dates back—in English—to at least 1945, as World War II was coming to a close. American prisoners learned the word while in captivity in Japan. In Japanese, the word translates as "squad leader," from han, meaning "squad," and chō, meaning "head, chief." Not long after the war ended, in 1952, General Eisenhower himself was called the "chief honcho" in the Los Angeles Times. Often the word appears in the mildly redundant but pleasantly alliterative phrase head honcho.

Definition: a fast-growing Asian vine (Pueraria lobata) of the legume family that is used for forage and erosion control and is often a serious weed in the southeastern United States

The kudzu vine, I’m told, grows about an inch an hour. That’s crazy fast. A single kudzu strand can stretch a hundred feet, which is probably twice as high as the trees it clings to.
— Robert Krulwich, National Geographic, 12 Apr. 2016

Anyone who's lived in or visited the southeastern U.S. is familiar with kudzu. It's that thick mass of green that can be spotted climbing up trees and overtaking abandoned buildings and anything else in its path. The plant is native to China and Japan, and was transplanted to North America to help prevent erosion, but it's since become a bit of a menace. The word kudzu is still perfectly nice, though. It comes from Japanese kuzu, and has been in use in English since at least 1876.

Definition: a small amount : bit, smidgen —used adverbially with a

A few dogs are huddling just inside the gate when Odenkirk unlatches it. He opens it a skosh, and one of them, an Irish setter, bolts and runs across the parking lot.
— Scott Raab, Esquire, 6 May 2016

Skosh is another word introduced into English by U.S. soldiers, though this time those soldiers learned the word while stationed in Japan after World War II had ended—our earliest evidence of it in use in English is from 1952. Our word skosh comes from Japanese sukoshi, which is pronounced \skoh-shee. Sukoshi is translated as "a tiny bit" or "a small amount," making our word skosh identical in meaning to its parent word. The English word, however, is also sometimes used adverbially with a, as in "I'm fine, just a skosh tired."

Definition: quick-cooking egg noodles usually served in a broth with bits of meat and vegetables

If you’ve never had real ramen before, please allow me a moment to describe the deliciousness. Picture fresh-cooked noodles, rich, savory broth, the perfect amount of spice, and if you want, a few slices of pork and a half-cooked egg.
— Geoffrey Morrison, Forbes, 30 May 2016

Early evidence dates the word ramen in English to 1962, which makes it only a few years younger than the word in Japanese—though the dish itself dates to the 19th century when Chinese workers brought it to Japan. First called Shina soba (Shina is a term for China now disfavored by many; soba refers to noodles made from buckwheat flour—though ramen seems always to have been typically made from wheat-based noodles), the dish was called rāmen in Japan starting in the post-World War II years, from the Chinese (Pekingese) la (meaning "pull") and mien meaning "noodles." Ramen was also called Chūka soba for a time. (Chūka is a form of Chūgoku, another name for China.)

Definition: a usually cotton-filled mattress used on the floor or in a frame as a bed, couch, or chair

He worked on the renovation for the next 10 months, with carpentry assistance from his father and sewing help from his mother, who helped him tailor a used futon that serves as his bed and couch….
— Kristin Hohenadel, Slate, 14 June 2016

A staple of small apartments, dorms, and guest quarters everywhere, the versatile futon has been part of our home furnishing vernacular for a long time. The word itself has been used in English since the late 1800s. While English speakers think of a futon as something you sleep (or sit) on, not under, the word in Japanese can also refer to a thick comforter, though the word kakebuton is the more typical word in that context.

Definition: a puzzle in which several numbers are to be filled into a 9x9 grid of squares so that every row, every column, and every 3x3 box contains the numbers 1 through 9

Sudoku is not for the weak. A hand model on the cover of sudoku book Sudoku Challenger proves that the puzzles therein are extremely difficult. So much so that the person on the cover can't get one right.
—Kelly Diamond, Mashable, 12 May 2016

The first sudoku-type puzzle was called a "Number Place" puzzle, and it appeared in a 1979 New York-based puzzle magazine. Five years later, the puzzles started to appear in Japan where they were dubbed Sudoku, short for sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru, meaning “the numerals must remain single” (i.e., the digits can occur only once). Sudoku puzzles—and the word sudoku itself—didn't start appearing in English publications until the early part of this century.

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Definition: a small, light vehicle with two wheels that is pulled by one person on foot or on a bicycle and that is used in some Asian countries

Fisher writes of an American psychology grad student attending a conference in Beijing. He had a mad crush on another student. He invited her for a rickshaw ride, knowing that novelty and danger can trigger the dopamine system—goosing the potential for falling in love.
—Mackenzie Dawson, The New York Post, 22 May 2016

The English word rickshaw, also spelled ricksha, originally had another syllable out front: jinricksha (also spelled jinrikisha). That word comes directly from Japanese, where jin means "man," riki means "strength" or "power," and sha means "carriage." Rickshaws originated in Japan, where they were first used in the late 1800s. They're now common in many parts of Asia as well as in a number of cities in the U.S.


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