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Japlish: It's two confusing languages in one!
Learn this commonly used Frankenstein monster of hybrid linguistics for fun and profit
I was ordering a beer at one of my regular bars in Shimbashi last year, when the bartender leaned over and in a low voice said, “Excuse me, but there’s a special event today, so it’s kyasshuon.”
Kyasshuon...? Cushion? Was I supposed to bring a cushion? Are people providing their own cushions at bars these days?!
“What’s kyasshuon?” I asked, bewildered. “Kyasshuon deribarii (キャッシュオンデリバリー),” he explained, using the full English phrase. Ah, ha!
Cash on delivery.
Anticipating that the bar would be crowded for the event, they were asking customers to pay with the “delivery” of each drink rather than settling their tabs at night's end. I broke out a 1,000 yen note and was rewarded with a pint of delicious beer.
Rust in translation
Although kyasshuon deribarii is based on the English phrase, in practice it's much different from its Western counterpart. Kyasshuon's (キャッシュオン) use is limited to bars and restaurants, whereas “cash on delivery” refers to a method of payment in which a delivery service, rather than the company that sells the product, collects the bill for a purchase.
While C.O.D. purchases are not common in English-speaking countries these days, in Japan the practice is alive and well; it’s called daikin hikikae (代金引き換え)—not kyasshuon deribarii—and is still used quite frequently, even for large purchases such as televisions and other appliances.
There is an array of Japanese words like kyasshuon that are based on foreign (often English) words, but have very different meanings. They are called wasei-eigo (和製英語) or, more generally, wasei-gairaigo (和製外来語)—literally “English of Japanese creation” or “foreign words of Japanese creation”—and they can create a disconnect for Japanese people, as well as neophytes, who sometimes assume they have the same meaning in their language of origin as they do in Japanese language, when they really do not.
Negotiating these words can be as important as learning complicated Chinese characters (kanji), sometimes more so given the frequency with which you are likely to encounter them in Japan.
Many of the words refer to basic roots. If you want ice cream, you should ask for “ice” (aisu, アイス); frozen water is actually called kōri (氷) in Japanese. Jeans are “G-pan” (jiipan, ジーパン), the "pan" deriving from "pants" (pantsu). And “concent” (based on “concentric plug;” konsento, コンセント) is the Japanese word for a power outlet, which locals wrongly assume all English speakers will innately understand.
Other examples of Japlish are used to translate relatively modern phenomena. If you’re staying at a Japanese hotel, you should ask for a “morning call” (mōningu kōru, モーニングコール) instead of a wake-up call.
Small and mid-sized Japanese concert venues are referred to as “live houses” (raibu hausu, ライブハウス). And Velcro is colloquially referred to as “magic tape” (majikku teepu, マジックテープ).
And then there are those phrases that yield such inherent linguistic pleasure—a result of either the sound or the strangeness of the new word—that all students of Japanese should be familiar with them. A recent personal hobby is often referred to as “my boom” (mai būmu, マイブーム), most likely arising from a explosion in the popularity of something fashionable.
Advertising copy is referred to as “catch copy” (kyatchi kopī, キャッチコピー). “Nighter” (naitaa, ナイター) is Japanese for a sports game played at night. And a word that puts the “fun” in fundoshi (traditional Japanese underwear) is “classic pants” (kurashikku pantsu, クラシックパンツ).
Although many of these words tickle foreigners funny bones as they discover them, today they're just as Japanese as any other word in the language.