LINGUIST List 12.1892

Wed Jul 25 2001

Qs: "Arigato" and "Tempura" Origins

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  1. Karl Teeter, Re: 12.1871, Sum: Origins of Arigato
  2. Karen S. Chung, Re: 12.1871, Sum: Origins of Arigato/Origins of Tempura

Message 1: Re: 12.1871, Sum: Origins of Arigato

Date: Mon, 23 Jul 2001 10:14:44 -0400
From: Karl Teeter <>
Subject: Re: 12.1871, Sum: Origins of Arigato

By now this may well be supererogatory, but sorry, arigato (with a double 
o) just means, in an honorific form, }"I am obliged"--in short the favor 
you do me is something difficult to repay. kvt
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Message 2: Re: 12.1871, Sum: Origins of Arigato/Origins of Tempura

Date: Mon, 23 Jul 2001 10:41:20 +0800
From: Karen S. Chung <>
Subject: Re: 12.1871, Sum: Origins of Arigato/Origins of Tempura

 I want to thank Jonathan Lewis very much for his survey and sum on the
origins of _arigatoo_. I am the author of the paper on returned Japanese loans
(Chinese -> Japanese -> back to Chinese) in Taiwan Mandarin that Jonathan refers
to - no need to hide identities! And I am pleased to see that the _Language
Change in East Asia_ volume has a readership in Japan.

 I found the responses to the question interesting, but I must say, I am now
not really sure either way what the answer is. The respondents may be quite
right, and the Portuguese _obrigado_ story simply a case of folk etymology or
urban legend. It was a connection I had had pointed out to me a number of times
which sounded plausible and which I accepted.

 It is true that there are Chinese characters for _arigatoo_: _you3_ 'to
have', and _nan2_ 'difficulty', and these are given in the paper referred to.
This expression does not to my knowledge exist in Chinese (and Chinese are often
surprised when they learn that these are the characters for _arigatoo_), but
_arigatoo_ could well have been coined from the native Japanese roots _aru_ 'to
have' and _kata(i)_ 'difficulty', and then assigned Chinese _kunyomi_
characters, to create a word for 'thank you'.

 But in fact many foreign words in Japanese have been assigned _kanji_, or
Chinese characters, e.g. _peiji_ 'page' is written with the Chinese character
_ye4_ 'page'. 'Concrete' used to be written with the Chinese characters
_hun3ning2tu3_, literally, [mix + solidify + earth], and pronounced _konkuriito_
(the second character is in theory pronounced _gyoo_, but is used only for
meaning rather than pronunciation here). The Chinese subsequently adopted the
Japanese-coined characters to translate the word 'concrete', though the written
character compound went out of use in Japanese.

 My belief when I wrote the passage in question was that _obrigado_ was
borrowed phonetically into Japanese at some point and assigned Chinese
characters that corresponded to the phonetics, based on a _kunyomi_ reading. I
recall how one Japanese professor of mine once said he didn't know until very
late in life that _niku_ 'meat' was in fact a Chinese loan; it 'sounded' very
native Japanese to him. Saying that a Japanese expression 'has Chinese
characters' does not necessarily mean it 'comes from Chinese' - it may be
completely native Japanese, completely Chinese, completely 'foreign' (i.e. not
Japanese and not Chinese), or some kind of a hybrid. But the _obrigado_
connection may indeed simply be wrong. So I would be interested if anybody has
any further leads on this.

 On a related topic, I am also wondering about the origin of _tempura_. My
Kenkyusha dictionary says it's from Dutch _tempero_, a word which definitely
doesn't look Dutch, and which isn't in the very thick _Standaard
Handwoordenboek_ Dutch-English dictionary. Does anybody have any information on
the origin of _tempura_?

 Karen Steffen Chung
 National Taiwan University
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