Curious Katakana Words 1

The Japanese language has a smattering of quirky expressions. At first glance, their meanings can often elude us. This is especially so with Katakana words, as they often contain elements from foreign languages, as well as mixtures of slang and even current, trending terms.

Some of you may remember these from a past collaboration post between Tofugu and Gakuranman. It doesn’t hurt to revise, and there was such a wealth of good material that I couldn’t let it slip through the nets. We’ll be looking to expand on this series in the future as well, so revisiting ‘Strange Katakana Words’ now will set us up well for that!

Firstly then, what uses can Katakana have? We touched on them in this post introducing the Japanese alphabets, but didn’t go into detail. Let’s take a look below.

  • Foreign loan words
  • Onomatopoeic/mimetic expressions
  • Technical terms
  • Emphasising
  • Unifying
  • Shortening
  • Okurigana
  • We’ll be looking at all of these uses across the next few lessons, with the one exception of Okurigana that I’ll briefly explain now. Katakana is sometimes used in old, historical documents in place of where we would use Hiragana today. Things such as particles and suffixes, as well as for Furigana to show the reading of difficult Kanji compounds. It is also used in Okurigana – the parts of words that inflect the verb (to show what tense it is in, or its aspect, such as ‘short’ or ‘not short’). For most people though, you needn’t worry about using Katakana for these purposes – just know that it does exist.

    Okay then, let’s go. First up —

    Foreign Loan Words

    By and large, Katakana is used for writing words of a foreign origin. Often they have been lifted directly from the language (which isn’t always English) and Japanised. This can lead to extremely confusing expressions that both native English speakers and native Japanese speakers fail to understand at first glance. Once you start seeing a bunch of Katakana words like this, you’ll start feeling a new affinity for all those Kanji you have to learn. Being able to see a character and understand its fundamental meaning is incredibly useful!


    Clown, from the French ‘pierrot’.


    Part time work, from the German ‘arbeit’. This word is used a lot in Japan, especially among young people. It can be shortened to just バイト.


    A claim or complaint about something. Note the similar word クレーマー (claimer). This sort of person likes to make complaints about things, often arguing to the point of becoming obtuse and loud. They will rarely accept any explanation that doesn’t meet their request.


    A signature or autograph. It can be both the celebrity kind and boring, personal kind you’ll need to fill out tax forms and sign for packages.


    A beer-mug, most likely derived from the English word ‘jug’.


    A zip. The word was most likely coined from the second part of the Japanese word 巾着 (きんちゃく), meaning purse or bag.


    This is a Snack Bar in Japan. Usually a small establishment where men go to drink, eat snacks and chat with the women hired to entertain them. It’s not strictly sexual unlike many other places, but light-hearted flirting and karaoke are usual.


    A newscaster/announcer on radio or television.


    A consent is a mains plug that you stick in the wall outlet, most likely derived from the term ‘concentric plug’.


    Stickers. Why ‘seal’ in Japanese? Perhaps it has something to do with the old practice of sealing an envelope with beeswax and imprinting a personal seal on it.


    A virus, most likely derived from the Latin word.


    A screwdriver.

    Here’s another collection of foreign words than can be confusing in Japanese.


    Playing cards. The ‘trump’ here probably comes from ‘trump card’ in English – a card with an elevated rank. Incidentally, the word for ‘trump card’ in Japanese is 切り札 (きりふだ). Confusing, no?


    An all-you-can-eat restaurant. This word was coined in 1958 by the Imperial Hotel who took the concept of a Scandinavian smorgasbord renamed it as Viking, possibly on connection to a popular film about vikings at the time. Thus was born the バイキング料理.


    A cloak or a cape, from the French word ‘manteau’.


    An upper-market apartment – not a mansion in the sense that we know it!


    A questionnaire, from the French word ‘enquête’.


    This is a stapler. The word ‘Hotchkiss’ comes from the company name of E. H. Hotchkiss, who sold staplers in Japan in the early 1990s. Contrary to popular Japanese belief (and the mistaken explanation included in many dictionaries), it does *not* refer to the machine guns B.B Hotchkiss invented. Mighty funny mistake though!


    A quota; minimum production goal, originally from Russian.


    A flat tire or puncture.


    The reception desk at the front of a hotel.


    Makeup. This is another young person’s word. It has even become a verb – メイクする – to get made up!


    A microwave oven. The ‘range’ comes from cooking range, used in a variety of appliances.


    An x-ray. The word refers to Wilhelm Conrad ‘Röntgen’, the German physicist who invented X-Rays.

    Okay, that’s all for this time. In the second part we’ll be looking at some Onomatopoeia!


    9 Responses to Gakuu. Studying with Real Japanese

    1. Sabrina September 29, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

      This is pretty cool! Right now I’m studying on Textfugu which is great! I belive Gakuu can be really helpul too. What I like most is that its for pre-intermediate to advanced level students. So you can’t say its the same thing over and over again… students can actually improve their knowledge here. Thank you very much for creating this site. Have a nice day :)

      • Gakuranman September 30, 2010 at 1:09 am #

        Hi Sabrina! Thank you for your comment :).

        That’s definitely our aim. I love Textfugu for beginners and really getting students a solid grounding in the language, but afterwards (and even while) studying the basics, it can really help to encounter raw Japanese material. You don’t have to understand everything at first, but feeling challenged and picking up little bits here and there that are extra to your learning the basics helps expand your mind. Let me know if you have any more questions! More demonstration material will be up soon! We are currently having a special launch sale price for early adopters, so check out the pricing page if interested :).

        • Sabrina September 30, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

          Thanks for your reply. :) Unfortunately I’m even still miles away from the intermediate level. But I’ll definetly return to Gakuu when I get to this point. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the extra demonstration material. :) Keep up the good work.

          • Gakuranman October 1, 2010 at 12:21 am #

            Sure thing :). Let me know if you have any other questions or suggestions for things you’d like to see on Gakuu!

    2. missingno15 October 1, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

      When I looked at this, I first thought to myself, “aw hell no, gakuranman is doing the same thing as koichi…even the website layout is similar”. But then I realized “it’s aimed at pre-intermediate to advanced level students” which is perfect for my situation right now because I now really want to excel way past beginner. So basically, Gakuu really complements Textfugu. Can’t wait for more lessons to see how this is gonna be like so I can decide if its worth getting.

      • Gakuranman October 1, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

        Hey there! Thanks for dropping by :). No way – Koichi and I are buds. I’ve always loved teaching the more advanced stuff so it worked out perfectly. I’ll be adding more stuff in the coming days, so please stay tuned!

        • Lee Aloy October 23, 2016 at 5:20 am #


          I am sorry to ask this silly question. Are you Japanese?
          am hoping to find a Japanese friends here please shot me an email:

    3. DumbOtaku (percent20) October 3, 2010 at 12:58 am #

      This is really cool. I am glad to see more online content going beyond just teaching hirigana and katakana. That is what I try to do on my blog, but with to little consistency. Glad to see an expert do it, btw already a signed-up paid member now. :)

      • Gakuranman October 3, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

        Glad to have you man! Look forward to hearing any suggestions you have for the site and future lessons :)

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