The Top 10 Most Butchered
Japanese Words In English
Below, you'll see the top-ten most mispronounced Japanese words in English. The only reason people who mess up these words don't get laughed and pointed at is that so many people don't know how to say them any better.
1. Karate. In Japanese, this means "the empty hand", obviously referring to the lack of weapons used in karate. We English speakers tend to pronounce it "kuh-rah-dee". When spoken properly, it's pronounced "kah-rah-tay".
2. Sake. This term refers not only to Japanese rice wine, but also to booze in general. Probably 85% of people wrongly pronounce it either "sah-kee", "socky" or "sacky". You'll avoid sounding like you drank far too much sake just by saying it "sah-kay".
3. Sayonara. There are lots of ways I've heard people screw this one up, but the proper way to say it is "sah-yoo-na-rah", making sure you stress the "yoo" part.
4. Manga. This word is relatively fresh meat on the cold slab of ruining Japanese words in English. It refers to Japanese comics in general. Most people pronounce it "maynguh", but it should be more like "mahn-gah".
5. Karaoke. I realize this term is so embedded in the English language that it's acceptable to butcher it, but the proper way to pronounce it in Japan (where it's originally from) is "kah-rah-oh-kay". Other people may make fools of themselves with their singing, but you won't be embarrassed with your pronunciation.
6. Kamikaze. We all know how most people pronounce this, but it's actually "kah-mee-kah-zay". As you may know, this means "divine winds", which is a term that goes back to Genghis Khan's attempt to invade Japan in the 1200s, but which usually refers to the WWII suicide pilots.
7. Shitake. This is yet another case of us Westerners messing up our E's. This popular mushroom is pronounced "she-tah-kay".
8. Samurai. Everybody knows what a samurai is. But not everybody knows that it's pronounced "sah-moo-rai". The key thing here is not to say the first part the way you would say "Uncle Sam". In terms of Japanese words in English, just seeing this little nuance makes you stand out.
9. Gyoza. Next time you are at a Japanese restaurant, you might as well order these delicious little appetizers the right way. Some people call them "ghee-yo-zah". The trick is to make sure you only use two syllables and stress the first one. Example: "gyooh-zah".
10. Ronin. In old times, this meant a "masterless samurai". But today it can also mean a student who has to take a year or two off before college because he/she hasn't done too well on the entrance exams. People tend to have ronin rhyme with "bowling pin", but it should be pronounced "roh-neen", rhyming more with "spleen.
Japanese Word In English
We Haven't Screwed Up
Now here are some of the top 5 Japanese words in English that Western culture actually gets right. These are in no particular order, other than that they are the popular ones. The chances are extremely good that you're pronouncing the following words just fine, so just keep on doing what you're doing.
Miso—A tasty Japanese soup that you're probably familiar with. I'm glad most people say this right, beacause it's only two syllables.
Tsunami—After the tragedies a few years ago in Southeast Asia, plenty of news reporters and others had the chance to say this word, and most of them got it right.
Haiku—The famous 5-7-5 syllable Japanese poem. The first time I ever heard this word was in Wayne's World, and it turns out that he actually pronounced it correctly!
Geisha—Though most people have the pronunciation down pat, the common misconception is that geisha are prostitutes. They are actually just entertainers.
Bonsai—Not to be confused with the congratulatory phrase banzai, this refers to the tiny (as in a few inches tall) Japanese trees that live for an extremely long time.
Click here to check out how to say and write more Japanese words
Did you know...
It used to be fashionable for some Japanese women to dye their teeth black.