Kanji Clinic #66 The Japan Times February 3, 2005
"New kanji words in 2004 were linguistic treats"

Imaginative compound words are continually being cooked up by the Japanese media, advertisers, and young people, and 2004 was no exception. Sino-Japanese characters are remarkably productive tools for generating new words, and when katakana and hiragana (Japan's phonetic scripts) are added to the mix, the linguistic possibilities become even greater. Here is a sampling of some hot kanji word newcomers:

武装スリ団 (busousuridan, armed-pickpocket-corps) made its debut in 2004 after gangs of pickpockets abandoned their traditional stealthy modus operandi and attacked train passengers in Tokyo with knives and tear gas. おめでた婚 (omedetakon), a combination of おめでた (“the happy event,” euphemistic for “pregnancy”) and 婚 (the second kanji in kekkon, “marriage”) is a new expression (similar toできちゃった結婚, dekichattakekkon, gone and done it - wedding) meaning that the bride is expecting a baby.

The increasing (but still relatively small) number of iconoclastic Japanese men who stay at home while their wives work fulltime were dubbed 家事夫 (kajio, housework-husbands) by the media. Although it actually isn't, “kajio” sounds sort of like a male name (a la “Toshio”), and has a more playful tenor than “sengyoushufu” (専業主夫, “fulltime househusband”). In the latter, the final character of the longstanding word専業主婦 (sengyoushufu, “fulltime housewife”), 婦 (fu,“wife”), has simply been replaced with the identically pronounced 夫 (fu, “husband”).

An endless array of homonyms like these provides a wealth of raw material for the coinage of new kanji words. Last year, for example, a popular Japanese magazine ran photos of teenagers sitting on a sidewalk eating convenience store food with their classmates. The magazine dubbed this quasi-meal “友食” (yuushoku, friend-eat), a nifty pun based on another word pronounced “yuushoku” (夕食, night-eat, “dinner”), but issued an apology the following month, admitting the photo shoot had been staged.

It has become popular among the young to exploit another pair of homonyms when composing text messages: substituting the honorific “o,” usually written in hiragana, with 汚, a kanji meaning “dirty” and also pronounced “o” (e.g., 汚友達, otomodachi, “dirty friend,” in lieu of お友達, otomodachi, “honorable friend”).

Another way Japanese teenagers come up with new words to confound their parents is to substitute the standard on (Chinese) pronunciations of individual kanji in a compound word with other possible pronunciations. Thus “hon-ki” (本気 real-spirit, “earnestness”) became “pon-ge,” as in “Ponge dashite ganbaru. (“I’m gonna give it my best shot.”)

The astounding popularity of cell phones in Japan has ushered in many new abbreviated compound words. For example, 家の電話番号 (ie no denwa bangou, “home phone”) metamorphosed into the streamlined 家電 (ieden), and 着信メロデイー (chakushin merodii, “incoming call melody”) became 着メロ (chakumero).

空弁 (soraben) sold like hotcakes in Japanese airports last year, with many customers making special trips to the airport for the sole purpose of buying them. 空 means “sky” and 弁 is short for 弁当 (bentou, “boxed lunch”). 空弁 is a modern spinoff of beloved old-timer 駅弁 (ekiben, train station-bentou).

One relatively new kanji compound I frequently heard sprinkled in the banter of my university students last year was 爆睡 (bakusui, explode-sleep, “crash out,” as in, “Kinou densha no naka de bakusui shichatta.” “I crashed out on the train yesterday.”).

Finally, a couple of already-established kanji compound words each took on a new twist : 撃沈 (gekichin, attack-sink), which heretofore has meant “the sinking of a ship,” began being used by young people to mean “feeling blue.” 埴輪 (haniwa), clay figures of warriors used to decorate the tombs of Japanese nobles from 250-600 A.D., came to describe high school girls who roll their uniform skirts up to micro-mini length and don baggy gym pants underneath. The original 埴輪, long-haired and hollow-eyed, also wore trousers under skirts (actually, they were belted tunics), proving once again that fashion trends often do repeat themselves.

One of the most exciting aspects of being a kanji lover is encountering some of the new kanji concoctions served up every year. Be sure to keep your eyes and ears open in 2005 for new items on the ever-changing kanji word menu.

Read more about brand-new kanji words here.

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