Magic tape, paper drivers and pocket monsters

by Mellissa Martinez


My teenage son, Diego, is spending this month on a youth exchange program in Japan. Although it was my idea that he experience the world, I miss him tremendously and find myself clutching the phone (like a teenager myself), hoping he will call or text.

On his first call, he reported that communication with his homestay father verged on the hysterical—Google Translate was eventually discarded for pen, paper and rudimentary drawings. The second time he phoned, he had no time to visit or share his Japan tales. He had an urgent demand: an international data-roaming plan so that he could play Pokémon GO!

Diego had found himself in the heart of Pokéland. Having seen Claremont turn into a crowded causeway of single-minded, blurry-eyed, screen-staring walkers, I can only imagine the streets of Tokyo. Personally, I have very little interest in the game, but I am certainly intrigued by its name. The word Pokémon was derived from a process known as wasei-eigo, or ‘Japan-made English.’

Wasei-eigo refers to the borrowing of English words by Japanese and the subsequent transformation of those words. Letters that don’t exist in Japanese, such as ‘l’ and ‘b,’ are switched for ‘r’ and ‘v’ and the Japanese pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel is imposed. Most interestingly, the meaning of the English word is somewhat manipulated.

For example, the English words ‘magic’ and ‘tape’ are put together to form majikkut?pu, which means Velcro in Japanese English. ‘Health’ and ‘meter’ form herusu m?t? to mean bathroom scale, and ‘guard’ and ‘man’ form g?do man meaning security guard.

After much use, these words often diverge so far from their original English meaning that they define concepts that are unfamiliar to non-Japanese. Consider the term sarariman, ‘salary man.’ Although we don’t actually have this expression in English, the Japanese formed the noun out of English words ‘salary’ and ‘man’ to mean ‘male office worker.’

Other examples are p?p? doraiba from ‘paper’ and ‘driver,’ to describe a person who has a driver’s license but rarely drives, and pea rukku from ‘pair’ ‘look,’ which identifies couples who like to dress in twin outfits (you know the ones).

Some of the more colorful wasei-eigo terms are ny? h?fu, from the words ‘new’ and ‘half,’ meaning transgender, and paipu katto, from ‘pipe’ and ‘cut,’ meaning vasectomy (no, I am not making this up). Try saying them yourself and you can hear the root word.

Despite these grin-inducing options, currently the most globally recognized wasei-eigo word is Pokémon. The only other wasei-eigo word to have achieved such popularity in the Western world is karaoke, a combination of the Japanese kara, ‘empty’ and the English orchestra, okesutora.

According to a recent article in Time magazine, in the mid-1990s, Pokémon developer Satoshi Tajiri took the first syllables of the words ‘pocket’ and ‘monster,’ which became poketto monsut? in wasei-ego. Mashing them together, he came up with the three-syllable sensation, Pokémon. The monsters, themselves, also derive their names from Japanese English. Some of my favorites are Machoke from ‘macho’ and ‘choke,’ Exeggcute from ‘egg’ and ‘execute’ and Mareep from ‘Mary’ (of Mary had a little lamb) and ‘sheep.’

Unfortunately for Diego, I was not willing to pay the exorbitant sum required for international data roaming in Japan, so he will be forced to forego hunting for Jumpfluf, Snorlax and Electabuzz for now. Perhaps he will spend his last week in Japan like the kids from pre-wi-fi days engaged in activities such as watching prime-time TV—g?ruden aw? (golden hour), visiting a bar with live music—raibu hausu (live house), or simply developing close relationships—sukinshippu (skin ship) with the other teens at the local geimu sentaa (game center) ‘video arcade.’ 


Submit a Comment

Share This