More Adventures in Cross-Linguistic Nomeclature – What’s (not) in a name?

I’ve been way too quiet on the blogging front over the last few months.  Finding things to write about can be tricky, especially without a good camera and the time to find that perfect shot, not to mention the weather playing up – we’ve had temperatures fluctuating from hot to cold and back again, and yet another typhoon is brewing as I write this.


That low pressure cell off Hokkaido is the remains of the typhoon that just passed through, and another one is sitting just off the Philippines.

Typhoon – an interesting word.  There is a large body of people here who think that it must be a corruption of the Japanese word taifu (台風), when in fact the reverse is closer to the truth.  While the etymology of the English word is unclear –Persian, Sanskrit and Greek roots have been cited – the modern Japanese word did not appear until after exposure to the English version.


Folk etymology is one thing, but incorrect translations are another, and one that really gets my goat is the definition most Japanese give for “beetle”.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary provides us with this definition:


  • an insect of a large order distinguished by having forewings that are typically modified into hard wing cases (elytra), which cover and protect the hindwings and abdomen.

A disproportionally large number of English-Japanese dictionaries, however, give the translation as meaning “rhinoceros beetle”.  For example, I looked in my little “wordtank” electronic dictionary (I like to think of it as a “wordmoke”) under “beetle”, and it gave the definition as “rhinoceros beetle”.  I then tried Japanese to English – it gave the correct definition for “beetle”, but also gave  the meaning of “rhinoceros beetle” as “beetle”!  It’s a bit like deciding that the word for dog in one language means “golden retriever” in another! 

On English-to-Japanese mode, it gives the definiton as “rhinoceros beetle”…

… but on Japanese-to-English, defines 甲虫 (“beetle”) as…

Even the classic Volkswagen beetle is sometimes given the nickname “kabutomushi” (rhinoceros beetle) thanks to this error. 

Sorry folks, the VW beetle looks like a ladybird.  If you want something that resembles a rhinoceros beetle, I suggest you start looking at tanks!


Incidentally, the Japanese word for beetle is kochu (甲虫), and I wish more Japanese would learn it!!


It’s autumn, and that means chestnuts.  But for English speakers, the word “chestnut” is a rare find.  You see, the Japanese decided to adopt the French word marron when talking about non-traditional chestnut dishes, but think that it’s English.  I remember my early days of English teaching (I already had a firm background in Japanese at the time) and students telling me about “maron”, only to find it didn’t register.  It wasn’t in my vocabulary, it wasn’t in my Japanese-English dictionary… the closest word I knew was the name of an Australian freshwater crayfish!


Regular readers of this blog might remember that the Japanese word for chestnut is kuri (栗). 


Now it’s time to go off and teach some students the words “typhoon”, “rhinoceros beetle” and “chestnut”!

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