Etymology Stigmas: English vs Japanese

Etymology” means the study of the origin of words. The etymology of English words come from a mix of many languages:

  • 29% Latin
  • 29% French (a Latin language)
  • 26% German (English grammar is Germanic)
  • 6% Greek (mostly scientific/theologic words)
  • 10% others

Below you can see my diagram of the history of this blending of languages into modern day English. This complicated history of each words origin is unknown to the average English speaker. So though an English speaker may know how to use a word, they usually don’t know the word’s original meaning.

As an example, let us first look at the word “diabetes”. The medical word for the most common type of diabetes is “diabetes mellitus”. “Diabetes” comes from a Late Greek word for a group of urinary diseases. It literally meant “a passer-through” but it was used in Greek medicine to mean “an excessive discharge of urine”. The “mellitus” in “diabetes mellitus” means honey or generally, sugar. In many rural parts of American, “diabetes” is simply known as “sugar” — “My grandma got sugar”.

So you can see that the original meaning of diabetes is hidden from the English speaker. However, all high school educated Japanese speakers know the etymology of almost all their words because they use pictograms (“Kanji”) to write each meaningful part of a word. For example, in Japanese, “diabetes” is called “糖尿病” “tou-nyou-byou” or “sugar urine disease”. Nowadays in Japan there is a movement to change that name because of it can people with diabetes feel it stigmatize them by implying they have dirty urine. Fortunately most Americans don’t know the etymology of their own words so we are unaware of possible etymological stigmas. But for Japanese, Kanji (their characters) are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that they make the language rich and deeply meaningful, but a curse because they are very difficult to learn.

Another example of a hidden etymological stigma can be seen in the word “cachexia”. Cachexia is Loss a loss of body weight and muscle mass, and weakness that may occur in patients with cancer, AIDS, or other chronic diseases. The word for this in Japanese is “悪液質” aku-eki-shitsu (bad-liquid-substance). Whether in Japanese or English, it is a very bad condition, but because a Japanese person knows the meaning of each component of their words, they get a particularly bad feeling from 悪液質.

To an English speaker, however, the etymology of the word cachexia is hidden. “Kakhexia” is a greek word meaning “Bad Situation” and actually, the first half of the word “kakos” comes from the Proto-IndoEuropean root “kaka” which means “shit”. So, “a shitty situations” is the original sense of cachexia. “Kakos” is also the source of our word “cacophony” — shitty sound.

So you see, English speakers ignorance of their words etymology can protect them, but overall the beauty of Japanese is that MEANING is always staring their readers in the face.

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2 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

2 responses to “Etymology Stigmas: English vs Japanese

  1. rautakyy

    Interresting subject. In my native Finnish the traditional name of diabetes is “sokeritauti”, so literally a sugar-disease. I think that name is only some hundred or so years old and propably invented by the official language bureau. Today it is commonly called diabetes, because the doctors use a lot of latin words to sound more professional. I have no clue if there ever was any older names to it, but there may have been many in our various dialects. One could be “hivutustauti”, that was used to fairly literally describe several diseases, that killed slowly.

    “Kakka” is a Finnish word for shit, but it is typically used in conjunction, or by little kids. Adults are far more likely to say “paska”. I think the first is an early lone from Indo-European languages and the latter is original Fenno-Ugric. It is curious though why the loan word is assosiated with kids. Possibly because it is also used when people want to be more civil and the original word is thus seen as less refined, barbaric and rude. People do not want to teach their kids rude words and go for the version, that appears almost as an euphemism, even after centuries and generations.

  2. @ rautakyy: Yes, etymology stories abound. But the point of this post is how the etymology is hidden in English but not in Japanese. I imagine the same is true of Finnish — a language where etymology is easily forgotten.

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