What's your "izumu"?

Fragments of pseudo-English ooze into Japanese in the form of periodic social memes. A few years back, people were asking me, “What’s your izumu?” “Excuse me?”

“What’s your izumu? You know, what are you really, really into?”

“…Oh, you mean, what’s your ‘ism? Um, that’s not really the way you use that. You can only put it on the end of words to make them adjectives, like ‘imperialism.’ See how that works?”

“Whatever. What’s your izumu?”

“Uh, I really don’t have one. What’s yours?”

“Baseball!”

“Ooooookay then…”

This horrid patchwork—the linguistic equivalent of Sid’s creations from Toy Story—where prefixes and suffixes are attached willy-nilly to words with no regard for the original meaning or grammar, is all too common. Even when words are adopted wholesale, the Japanese meaning can be significantly different from the base language’s. Let’s not even talk about how the pronunciation gets warped.

There’s a morning show called, “Every.” Yes, that is the whole name. Not “Every Day,” not “Every Morning,” just “Every.” Every time (heh-heh) I hear the intro for the show, a group of chirpy female voices announcing, “E-be-ri!” I want to yell, “Every…what? Finish it, damn you!”

Ironically, a prominent newspaper, the Mainichi Shinbun(毎日新聞)has a name that’s perfect for similar abuse. 毎 means, “every,” so Mainichi Shinbun means basically “Daily News.” If I started a show called, 毎! you can bet that I’d start getting irate mail from Japanese and Nipponophiles alike telling me I was a moron who didn’t understand the language. But nobody bats an eye when it comes to 和製英語 or “made-in-Japan English.”

Thankfully, most of the memes like the izumu nonsense are short-lived. Unfortunately, new ones pop up all the time. Last year’s model was initialisms; using the first letters of alphabet letters to represent a phrase. The enduring linguistic item from that fad is KY.

No, it’s not what KY connotes in the rest of the world. Remember, this is Japan, nothing in the outside world has meaning here except what Japanese choose to adopt from Gaikokuland and make their own. KY stands for kûki yomenai(空気読めない)(lit: can’t read the air) i.e.: someone who is bad at reading signals, or socially inept.

「彼がKYだよ。」”He’s, like, so oblivious, ya know?”

The drawback—or bonus depending on your point of view—is that it makes communication into a kind of code. It’s even more obscure than most slang since you have to just know what the string of letters means, without any way to guess. Great for teenagers steeped in cultural context, not so much for people who don’t get daily infusions from the social petri dish, like their parents. Or hapless non-native speakers like yours truly.