This Year in Japanese

Dictionary Pros Pick Their Top New Words for 2016

Society Culture

Two major dictionary publishers have announced their new words of the year for 2016. As the Japanese language continues to evolve, it borrows and coins new terms at a rapid clip—and these, say the publishers, are the ones most likely to stick around long enough to end up in their dictionaries.

Hobohobo and the “Trump Shock”

The year-end selection of words that best represent the past 12 months is a global phenomenon today. As 2016 drew to a close, we saw the Oxford University Press select “post-truth” as its word of the year, defining this adjective as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Other dictionary publishers, including Merriam-Webster in the United States and Macquarie in Australia, issued their own picks toward the end of December or early in the New Year.

In Japan, the first annual list to join this global wave was the Words of the Year, compiled by Jiyū Kokumin Sha each year since 1984. For 2016, the editors of Gendai yōgo no kiso chishiki (Basic Knowledge on Contemporary Terminology), this company’s annual guide to new language, joined a celebrity panel of judges to pick kamitteru (“godlike” performance on the baseball field) as the top addition to the Japanese language.

More recently, Japan’s dictionary publishers have begun to get in on the act. Sanseidō, holder of the top share in Japan’s dictionary market, announced its “New Words of the Year” for the first time in 2015. Three scholars involved in compiling the company’s dictionaries of the Japanese language select words that have gained particular currency during the previous year and are likely to continue seeing use, ending up in the dictionary at some point. This exercise grew out of the Twitter feed of Iima Hiroaki, an editor of the Sanseidō kokugo jiten (Sanseidō Japanese Dictionary), who tweeted during 2014 about the new words he saw cropping up during the course of that year.

One hallmark of the selections for this event is the provenance of many of them in the language of young people’s everyday conversation. This year’s top pick—the adverb hobohobo, created through repetition of hobo to emphasize its meaning of “nearly” or “more or less”—was one of 1,182 terms suggested by the general public in open voting. Kamitteru, meanwhile, which took top honors in the Jiyū Kokumin Sha contest, was judged to be too faddish to stick around for the long run, and was dropped from the top 10 finishers as a result.

At a gathering on December 3, 2016, dictionary compiler Ono Masahiro (far right) and other selection committee members announced Sanseidō’s New Words of the Year. (Courtesy Sanseidō)

This year also saw Shōgakukan, publisher of the popular dictionary Daijisen, enter the ring with its own new-words contest. The company’s New Word Prizes, recognizing words recommended by readers and selected by the editorial staff for inclusion in the dictionary’s online edition, saw 10 nominees make it to the final selection round. The grand prize went to Toranpu shokku, the “Trump shock” accompanying the brash businessman’s election as the next president of the United States. Others in the final set of 10 were decidedly quotidian terms that had yet to make it into the Daijisen listings, including yudekoboshi, or the water discarded after boiling food ingredients, and keshikasu, the rubber crumbs left behind after using an eraser. All of the finalists are being added to the smartphone app and other digital versions of the dictionary right away.

Given the high profile enjoyed by companies that announce words of the year toward the end of the calendar, it seems likely that Japan will see more dictionary publishers announce their picks in the future. For now, we leave you with definitions of Sanseidō’s and Shōgakukan’s selections for 2016.

Sanseidō’s New Words of the Year for 2016

1. ほぼほぼ (hobohobo) — The adverb hobo means “nearly” or “more or less.” Beginning around the turn of the century, lexicographers began to notice increasing use of this doubled-up version, which repeats the term to emphasize that something is just about there; it appeared with still greater frequency from 2010 onward. “While the repetition is a sign of the speaker’s conviction about the statement,” notes the Japanese-language scholar and dictionary compiler Ono Masahiro, “it can cause the listener to be less confident that the desired outcome has nearly been achieved.”

2. エモい (emoi) — With its katakana component, emo, coming from the English “emotion,” this adjective describes things that are emotionally compelling—a moving piece of music or stirring performance by an actor, for instance. The word is documented in the 2006 book Minna de kokugo jiten! (A Japanese Dictionary for Us All!), pointing to its presence in the language for at least a decade, although it is only in the past few years that it has come to be a mainstream utterance.

3. ゲスい (gesui) Gesu, meaning “sleazy” or “dirty,” showed up in the Words of 2016 finalists as well, as part of gesu furin, “sleazy extramarital affairs.” This is a surprisingly old “new word,” dating back to the Edo period (1603–1868), when the adjective’s root gesu (下種) was used to mean “a person of lowly rank.” But it has seen a resurgence in use since the turn of the present century, particularly among young people, earning it a place on this list.

4. レガシー (regashī) — “Legacy” was another word on the long list of 30 nominees for the Words of 2016. Imported directly from English, this is used most often in Japanese to refer to infrastructural legacy, namely the facilities left after a city hosts an event like the Olympics. The word figures largely in the ongoing debate about how much Tokyo should spend on the athletic and housing facilities that will be needed for the 2020 Summer Games. Sanseidō’s selectors noted that while this katakana term is included in some Japanese dictionaries already, it is not given this particular definition—something that seems likely to change.

5. ヘイト (heito) — “Hate” was brought in from English for use in compound terms like heito dantai (hate groups) and heito kuraimu (hate crimes). On its own it also served as shorthand for heito supīchi (hate speech), targeted for the first time by legislation in May 2016. Rising visibility for the word points to a likely future for it in the pages of the country’s dictionaries.

6. スカーチョ (sukācho) — A portmanteau combining “skirt” with “gaucho pants,” this refers to easy-wearing pants that flare so widely toward the ankles they can look like a lengthy skirt instead. They were a major item on women’s fashion lists this year, and the dictionary editors judged that the garment—and thus its name—would stick around for more seasons, earning it a spot in glossaries of the Japanese languages. (Sukantsu, formed by combining “skirt” and “pants,” is a synonym candidate for inclusion.)

7. VR — “Virtual reality” (bācharu riaritī) was appearing in Japanese dictionaries as early as the mid-1990s, but the contraction VR was more of a footnote in their definitions than an actively used part of the language. In 2016 it made the Sanseidō list in this shortened form—pronounced bui āru or vi āru—thanks to its increased usage following the release of VR-enabled game systems in the autumn, inspiring the press to dub this “year one of the VR era” for Japan.

8. 食レポ (shoku repo) — “Dining reports” encompass everything from restaurant reviews to off-the-cuff comments on a dish. The term has its roots in Japanese television, known for its numerous programs featuring celebrities sharing their takes on the food they just sampled, and has steadily crept into mainstream usage during the 2010s.

9. エゴサ (egosa) — An “ego search” takes place when a web user puts his or her name (or personal website’s title) into the search bar to see what is being said online. This version of the term shortens search (sāchi) to produce a word that has seen growing use since the beginning of the 2010s.

10. パリピ (paripi) — “Party people” would ordinarily turn into pātī pīpuru when imported directly into Japanese as a loanword, but fun-loving vocabulary borrowers prefer the pronunciation pārī pīpō, sounding like something a DJ might shout over the noise of a party crowd. The contraction paripi has gained currency in the last few years, even appearing in verb formations like paripiru, meaning something like “to get together and have a good time,” and the nominal adjective paripi na.


神ってる (kamitteru) — The “godlike” grand-prize winner in Jiyū Kokumin Sha’s 2016 contest was noted as a word that leapt in prominence during the year after Hiroshima Carp manager Ogata Kōichi used it to describe Suzuki Seiya’s batting achievements. The Sanseidō judges decided that it was a fad without the promise of staying power, although they included it as a runner-up based on its popularity in the short term.

チャレンジ (charenji) — “Challenge” was on Jiyū Kokumin Sha’s 2015 list of nominees, where it referred to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s proposal to make Japan more friendly to entrepreneurs taking on fresh business challenges without fear of failure. This year, though, it was selected in a sporting context: Rio Olympic athletes were able to challenge officials’ calls in volleyball and other events thanks to rule revisions that impacted the Japanese language as well as the competition.

IoT — The Internet of things is making its presence felt in Japan as elsewhere, but the judges determined that its initialism has yet to gain broad currency in the language. Its inclusion on the runners-up list, though, marks it as one that will likely one day appear in dictionaries.

Shōgakukan’s New Words of the Year for 2016

トランプショック (Toranpu shokku) — The grand-prize winner in this year’s selection, the “Trump shock” refers to the surprise victory of Donald Trump in November’s US presidential election and its impact on financial markets and other institutions since then. For the most part, Japanese observers expected Hillary Clinton to come out on top, and have been scrambling to determine what a Trump presidency will mean for bilateral relations.

熊本地震 (Kumamoto jishin) — The “Kumamoto earthquakes” that struck the Kyūshū prefecture, along with its neighbor Ōita, in April were among the largest and deadliest quakes to strike Japan since March 11, 2011. The magnitude 6.5 temblor that hit on April 14 brought intensity 7 shaking—the highest level on Japan’s intensity scale—to parts of Kumamoto; the magnitude 7.3 main shock two days later caused widespread damage. The quakes killed some 50 people and injured thousands.

顔芸 (kaogei) — The “art of silly faces” is just what it claims to be—the creation of ridiculous expressions meant to spark laughter among viewers. Comedians like Shimura Ken have been getting laughs with crazy faces for decades, but this word is frequently used today to describe the over-the-top expressions appearing in anime and manga images.

ブレグジット (Buregujitto) — “Brexit” topped the international news coverage in Japan for some time before and after the June 23 referendum that saw British voters choose to remove their nation from the European Union. Japanese financial and manufacturing firms with European operations headquartered in Britain are concerned that their sales and services to continental Europe could be burdened by tariffs in a post-Brexit future.

インスタグラマー (Insutaguramā) — An “Instagrammer” is not just any user of the Facebook-owned photo-posting service, but specifically one who makes active use of the platform and has amassed a considerable number of followers. Japanese celebrities are increasingly taking to Instagram to market themselves to the public and share moments with their fans.

セカンドレイプ (sekando reipu) — A direct import from the English language, a “second rape” refers to the trauma experienced by a victim of sexual violence forced to relive the experience when it is addressed in police and courtroom proceedings—or when it is dug up in an uglier manner by Internet posters commenting on the crime.

ジェンダーレス (jendāresu) — “Genderless” was a fashion buzzword in 2016, describing clothing, accessories, and overall looks that crossed the border between male and female.

消しカス (keshikasu) — “Eraser detritus” is something that everyone has seen—the tiny bits of rubber left over after erasing pencil marks on a page—but it hasn’t had its own vocabulary term in the dictionary. This has now changed.

ポケモノミクス (Pokenomikusu) — The splash made by the mobile game Pokémon Go following its summer launch brought Japan “Pokénomics,” or the game’s impact on the real-world economy. When the title hit the Japanese market, every McDonald’s Japan outlet was marked in the game as a Pokéstop or training gym, making the chain’s restaurants destinations for avid gamers. Other businesses have signed up as sponsored locations since then.

茹でこぼし (yudekoboshi) — Another new term describing an old concept, “boiling and pouring out” is done in the kitchen when food is cooked in hot water and then the water is discarded. This is a common step in Japanese cooking after boiling an ingredient to remove harsh or astringent flavors.

(Originally published in Japanese on December 10, 2016. Dictionary images courtesy Sanseidō and Shōgakukan.)

publishing language Japanese