Serendipitous misinterpretations of English loanwords in Japanese

This is probably going to give me away as a hopeless language geek (I'd been hiding it so well until now, too!), but I find it fascinating when language speakers borrow a word from another language, and due to insufficient understanding of the loaning language misinterpret it — but in a way that makes sense.

Let me illustrate with three cases I know of in Japanese.


The Japanese for this is パンケーキ (pankeeki), which most Japanese I've spoken to mistakenly believe is a combination of the words パン (pan — "bread") and ケーキ (keeki — "cake"). This is wrong, because pancakes are called pancakes because they're cooked in a pan, but it also makes sense, because like bread, pancakes aren't sweet, and you put butter and something sweet on them.

パン (pan) is, incidentally, a loanword from Portuguese "pão."

Pan Pizza

The Japanese for this is パンピザ (pan piza). This case is similar to pancakes, above. In this case, most Japanese I've spoken to assume it's called "pan pizza" because the thick crust is like bread.

Flea Market

The Japanese for this is フリーマーケット (furii maaketto). Most Japanese I've spoken to assume it's composed of the words フリー (furii — "free," as in independent) and マーケット (maaketto –"market"). So it's a place where vendors are independent, paying a fee for a space in which to sell their wares.

There is actually a term in Japanese, のみの市 (nomi no ichi), which is a literal translation of "flea market." Not many Japanese people seem to make the connection between the two, however.

6 comments to Serendipitous misinterpretations of English loanwords in Japanese

  • Also, there seems to be a difference between パンケーキ (pancake)and ホットケーキ (hotcake) in Japan. I’ve been told that hotcakes use sweetened batter and pancakes do not.

  • Michael

    I once ate at a little hole-in-the-wall in Iwate that had パンケーキ, ホットケーキ, and フラップジャックス as three separate menu items. The flapjacks were the most expensive. When I tried to ask the owner the difference, he basically replied, “What, are you some kind of moron?”

    I thought about ordering all three to see for myself, but I figured I didn’t want to push things and get whacked on the head with a spatula. So I ordered just the flapjacks. “No flapjacks or hotcakes for morons. It’s pancakes or you get out of here.” Charming guy, eh? But I’ve gotta admit, those were some of the best pancakes this moron has ever had.

  • @Michael

    Very interesting! I did a Google image search on フラップジャックス (“flap jacks”), and it appears that this normally refers to the British flapjacks, which are a kind of muffin/meal cake/scone thingy.

    The pancake/hotcake distinction may be as Philip mentions.

    If they had also had グリドルケーキ (“griddle cakes”) on the menu, then I’d have started looking around for the hidden cameras.

  • Zac

    Flapjacks are made of oats with some sugar and are slightly moist. Not really like hotcakes or pancakes, so I cant imagine the iwate ones were like.

    In Britain, crepes are called pancakes. And we have no pancakes/hotcakes at all.

  • @Zac

    Thanks for the UK definition of flapjacks. In the US (at least in Ohio and California), flapjacks and pancakes are synonymous.

  • Zac

    On a business trip to South Carolina I was shocked to be told we were having ‘Chicken and biscuits’ for a mid morning snack as it was someone’s birthday in the office. To a Brit, ‘chicken and biscuits’ is like saying ‘chicken and cookies’. I told them I normally dunk Biscuits in my tea, not eat them with fried chicken.

    I was then quite surprised to see that a ‘biscuit’ is actually a kind of fatty bread-y pastry.

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