So news broke earlier this week that the word kawaii had made its way into the Oxford Dictionary, joining other previous Japanese-only words such as tsunami, bokeh and otaku. Another minor victory for anime-fandom around the world, and much silly dancing and cheering commences.
But then, I took some time out of my hectically packed dancing and cheering schedule in order to apply some logical thought to this, and I had to ask myself a question: But why?
First off – we have to consider that words like otaku and tsunami are words that are pretty much in everyday use in the English language and they do have some very specific meanings for which there isn’t really an equivalent in the English language itself.
Consider otaku. In Japanese, the word refers to someone with an unhealthy obsession with any particular hobby, so you could have train otaku (yes, there are people who go bonkers for trains), anime otaku, game otaku and so forth. The word’s usage has shifted slightly with its inclusion in the English language, and here in the West we use it simply to refer to someone who is a rather big fan of anime.
Tsunami refers very specifically to waves that are generated due to an event (usually geological) with the potential to create an abnormally large wave. While some may argue that we already have the phrase tidal wave in English, scientists and geologists tend to disagree with this usage since the wave isn’t generated by a tidal event.
Bokeh refers to the out of focus background of a photo; that’s pretty damn specific, and I’m not aware of a precise alternative in English (although any professional photographers may feel free to correct me on this).
So we get to kawaii （かわいい）. Directly translated it means “cute”. And we already have a word in English for it – that word being … well … cute? There’s no other specific meaning attached to it, and it doesn’t offer any difficulty in translation. Really. At least, none that I can think of. It’s one of the first words of the Japanese language I learnt to understand. If a character said kawaii – I knew exactly what it meant – although it took a while for my ears to adjust enough to tell the difference between kawaii and kowai (怖い) kowai means scary.
Another thing that bothers me here is the lack of general usage. I have any number of anime-fan type friends (and I can probably be classed as being relatively fanatical), and I have never EVER heard even them use the word. Except on their Facebook accounts. Or Twitter. And that doesn’t count.
So … I can think of several other words that could probably do with being in the Oxford Dict that I do actually hear quite regularly from English speakers (some of these were also taken from Danny Choo’s original post on Culture Japan:
Some of the terms above are pretty easy to explain (I’m not going to do it here, but maybe an anime term glossary is an idea for the near future), but I’d love to see anyone try a conscise explanation for terms like moe, tsundere and yandere. The point is, these terms don’t really have exact matches in English, which is almost why they would be a better idea. And I hear them being used plenty often.
A couple of suggestions in Danny’s post I don’t need to see in Oxford:
Does anyone else have any other suggestions or thoughts? Let us know in the comments :)