This Year in Japanese

Endearing Dejection: “Pien” Picked as One of Japan’s Words of 2020

Language Society

Many of the words of 2020 chosen by dictionary publishers were connected with the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was one unexpected, and unexpectedly adorable, winner.

It was a tough year for many in 2020, but dictionary publisher Sanseidō selected the cutest of distressed voices for its word of the year. Pien, which took off in popularity among young Japanese people, represents the sound of crying to express mild sadness or disappointment. In online usage, it is frequently paired with the puppy eyes of the “pleading face” emoji (🥺).

Unlike the “Words of the Year” contest or the ranking of the most searched keywords online, dictionary publishers aim to pick terms that will stick around. In a year dominated by COVID-19, words related to the pandemic stood out, but Sanseidō chose to make a less obvious selection. Dictionary compiler Ono Masahiro commented as follows.

When you’re feeling troubled or when things don’t go your way, this is a word to express that slightly despondent feeling. For example, “I came to the store everyone’s talking about, but it’s closed today. Pien.”

Compared with the passionate wailing of bien, it’s an onomatopoeic term that represents a more endearing, tearful voice. It can also be used as an adverb, such as in pien toshita kaotsuki, an endearingly dejected expression.

COVID-19 Vocabulary

The second to fourth positions in Sanseidō’s list, however, were connected to the pandemic.

The authorities called on residents to wear masks and show self-restraint (jishuku) for example by refraining from going out. Some members of the public, seen as overzealous in unofficially working to enforce these policies, were dubbed keisatsu (police), which was the second-ranked word on the list, as part of the compounds masuku keisatsu—self-appointed “mask police” warning those around them to cover up their faces—or jishuku keisatsu.

The term mitsu rose to prominence in the trio to be avoided, the san mitsu (three Cs): 密閉 (mippei; confined and enclosed spaces), 密集 (misshū; crowded places), and 密接 (missetsu; close-contact settings). Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko’s vocal complaints about mitsu when journalists pressed close around her helped raise the term’s profile.

Rimōto (remote) was an alternative to onrain (online) as seen in phrases like rimōto kaigi (virtual meetings), rimōto kisei (online visits to the family home) and rimōto nomi (remote drinking, with friends coming together via online networking tools to share a few glasses). However, its adaptability to abbreviation, as in rimobae (looking good remotely/online), a portmanteau of rimōto and haeru (to shine or stand out), gave it an extra edge.

Six more terms were selected for a special COVID-19 group separate from the top 10: sōsharu disutansu (social distance), sutei hōmu (stay at home), kurasutā (cluster), rokkudaun (lockdown), Amabie (a supernatural spirit that purportedly protects against disease), and shushi (a word for “fingers” often used when pressing home the need to wash them thoroughly). The publisher stated hopes that with the passing of the pandemic, there would be no need to include them in the dictionary.

Rival dictionary publisher Shōgakukan chose the phrase san mitsu (three Cs) as its word of the year. As runner-up, it picked koronaka, a word meaning literally “coronavirus calamity” that was often used to refer to the pandemic.

Sanseidō announces its 2020 choices. (© Sanseidō)
Sanseidō announces its 2020 choices. (© Sanseidō)

Sanseidō’s Top 10 New Words of the Year for 2020

  1. ぴえんPien. Mainly used among young people on social media to express tears due to light unhappiness or disappointment, although it can also represent happiness or deep emotion.
  2. 〇〇警察 — – Keisatsu. The self-appointed “police” who set themselves up to check that everyone else is following rules and requests, like wearing masks and staying indoors.
  3. Mitsu. It has been a year to avoid “close” or “crowded” places, as in the ubiquitous san mitsu (three Cs) phrase.
  4. リモートRimōto. From school to work to leisure time, much of our lives has been “remote” this year, conducted via the Internet.
  5. マンスプレイニングMansupureiningu. The English portmanteau “mansplaining,” deriving from those men who particularly talk down and explain to women, established itself in Japanese this year.
  6. 優勝Yūshō. Not a new word in its standard meaning of “championship win” or “victory,” this started being used to describe a “really good” experience.
  7. ごりごりGori gori. Used to describe someone “fanatical” about one particular thing, this may be positive in tone.
  8. まであるMade aru. When something exceeds one’s own expectations, this phrase comes into play. For example, the phrase kōcha dokoro ka, kēki made aru becomes in English, “there’s not just tea, there’s even cake.”
  9. グランピングGuranpingu. Glamorous camping with spacious tents, well-equipped facilities, and gourmet food provided becomes “glamping” in this Japanese term.
  10. チバニアンChibanian. The geological era, which covers the period from around 774,000 to 129,000 years ago, was ratified by the International Union of Geological Sciences in January 2020. It takes its name from the decision that a stratum at a location in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, is the most important reference point for studying the period boundary about 770,000 years ago.

Shōgakukan’s Top New Words of the Year for 2020

三密San mitsu [Winner]. The “three Cs” to avoid in the phrase devised to reduce the risk of infection.

コロナ禍Koronaka [Runner-up]. The “coronavirus calamity” was one of a number of common phrases in 2020 that used korona to refer to COVID-19, including uizu korona (with corona) for the period when people must live alongside the ongoing pandemic, and afutā korona (after corona) looking ahead to when it is over.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 30, 2020. Banner image © Pixta.)

Japanese language dictionary coronavirus COVID-19