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Storming the Dictionary: The Top New Japanese Words for 2017

Two of Japan’s leading dictionary publishers announce their top new words of 2017. An overview of the some of the most popular vocabulary to enter Japanese in recent times.

As 2017 entered its later stages, two of Japan’s major dictionary publishers announced their lists of the top words of the year. On November 30, Shōgakukan—which produces the well-known Daijisen dictionary—picked insuta-bae for the top prize. It combines insuta from Instagram with the traditional word hae for setting something off to good effect. As one of the judges, Professor Tanaka Makirō of Meiji University, explained, this does not only mean that a scene is likely to look good on the photo-sharing service. It is also expected to spark interaction with followers.

As rival publisher Sanseidō chose sontaku as its top word on December 3, the two dictionary companies’ words of the year ended up duplicating the two winning choices of the prominent Jiyū Kokumin Sha contest. However, the Sanseidō judges fiercely debated what exactly the new meaning of sontaku—hardly in itself a new word—was. In 2017, the term was most closely associated with a land deal scandal in which some suggested that officials had “followed the unspoken wishes” of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. The judges generally agreed that the word was connected with trying to surmise the wishes of others, but dissented on whether it meant acting on those wishes and whether the others were necessarily powerful.

It is not always easy to pin down the precise meaning of words that are just entering the language. The kanji 卍 (manji)—picked as a runner-up by Sanseidō—is an ancient religious symbol, but has recently become highly popular among Japanese teens with a new signification. It was apparently first used as an intensifier like maji (“really” or “totally”) and is often seen in the form maji manji. Later, manji span off into meanings like “really good,” “really bad,” and so many other variations that the Sanseidō judges gave up on the task of coming up with a definition. One questioned whether the people using it even knew what it meant.

  • [2017.12.28]
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