Days after its release, Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, a free mobile augmented reality app, has become nothing short of a worldwide phenomenon. The game maps its cute, battling Pokémon characters onto the real world, which is already causing a host of real-world disruptions. But gamers, technophiles, and Pokémon fanatics aren’t the only ones who should be obsessed with the hit game: word nerds should love it, too. Well, at least the rich linguistics behind the name Pokémon.
Gotta catch ’em all: the rich Japanese linguistics of Pokémon
Inspired by a love of bug-catching and Game Boy, Satoshi Tajiri launched Pokémon in Japan in 1995. He originally called it Poketto Monsutaa, or “Pocket Monsters,” referring to the capsule-like balls the game’s trainers use to catch its many creatures, known as Pokémon. (Pokémon is the singular and plural form of the word. Their names often feature some creative etymologies all their own.) Apparently, a competing media franchise, Monsters in My Pocket, forced Poketto Monsutaa into its now-familiar portmanteau, Pokémon, which blends the first elements of the words in accordance with Japanese phonology.
But Poketto Monsutaa isn’t just a Japanese “attempt” at English, or Engrish, as some deride it. Many consider this Pocket Monsters an instance of wasei-eigo, literally “made-in-Japan English.” This special and complex class of words resemble loanwords in that they draw on foreign words, but Japanese speakers re-fashion this source material for whole new purposes. A classic example now familiar in English is salaryman, or sarariman, a white-collar worker whose income is based on a salary. Other examples include baby car (bebika), a “stroller”; skinship (sukinshippu), “affectionate physical contact”; and in-key (in ki), a useful and economical term for “locking one’s key in one’s car.” There are many hundreds more, each filtered through katakana, the syllabary Japanese uses for foreign, technical, and scientific words as well as for emphasis and naming.
Wasei-eigo emerges in part after the rush of English into Japan following the Meiji period in the latter half of the 19th century. Today, many in advertising, marketing, business, and media use wasei-eigo to present a modern, Western sensibility popular among some consumers, as Pokémon appears to have done. And while many of these coinages have proven their staying power – indeed, English has “borrowed back” both salaryman and Pokémon – wasei-eigo continues to be a site for linguistic innovation and experimentation.
Pokémon Go, meanwhile, is proving its own site for technological innovation and experimentation. And a wildly popular one, too. So much so that Pokémon’s original “Pocket Monsters” may soon no longer refer to the game’s creatures – but to our smartphones.