If you’re a language lover, you should be obsessed with “Pokémon”

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. 

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.33.05 AM.png
Screen capture from the Pokémon Go US website. 

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 Pokémonwasei-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.

m ∫ r ∫

breakfast, lunch, & dinner

Fast Mash

  • Appearing in the 15th-century, beakfast joins break and fast, with the latter indeed related to its adjective form
  • Lunch is less clear; lunch is shortened from luncheon, which may be an extension of lunch, possibly from lump (compare bump and bunch); luncheon may have been formed on analogy to words like truncheon
  • In the 16th-century, a lunch was a “thick piece” or “hunk”; Spanish has lonja, meaning “slice”
  • Dinner is from French, dîner, earlier disner, which possibly goes back to Latin disjejunare, meaning to “break one’s fast”; Latin has jejunus, meaning “fasting,” giving English jejune and the anatomical jejunum 

There’s a small piece of my heart that is black and rotten–black and rotten because I am a mere monoglot. I hold a quiet grudge against the United States’ prevailing language-learning paradigm of monolingualism–at least for the dominant culture. Instead, I have to pop into another language like I’m visiting a 24-hour diner, ordering up a plate of huevos rancheros at some ungodly hour. And sure, I know my way around a couple of diners, and I know how diners work as such, but there’s no Norma serving me coffee and pie as soon as I walk into the R & R.

At least, like a diner, a language is always open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Speaking of which–what about those words, breakfastlunch, and dinner?

Breakfast

I’m going to argue that nearly every native English speaker has had this experience. First is the recognition that breakfast is a compound of break and fastSecond is the question issued to a family member or teacher: What is this “fast” one is breaking with a bowl of Cheerios? Third is disappointment with English vowels. The way we say break and fast on their own is nothing like the way they sound in breakfast. Some of us go onto a fourth stage, though later: a fascination with the way that spelling can gives us clues about the stories words have to tell.

The OED first attests breakfast in 1463, around the time when the word booted out Old English’s equally hearty compound, morgenmete, or “morning food.” (Yes, you are looking at a precursor of meat.)

Why did the word enter into English at this time? Perhaps there was a religious influence, with the monastic habit of first eating only after morning mass. This certainly jives with the religious notes of fast, the term ultimately related to its meaning of “firm” or “steadfast,” which also gave rise to its speedier sense.   

Lunch

Lunch‘s etymology is no quick lunch. It is a shortened form of luncheon, which itself may be an extension of lunch and modeled on words like truncheon and puncheon. (The -eon ending is not a meaningful suffix in its own right.)

Lunch could be from lump, in the way that hump and hunch and bump and bunch are related.

What could be lumpy about lunch? Your sandwich?

At one time, in the late 16th-century, a lunch was a thick slice or piece–a lunch of cheese, ham, or bread. Indeed, around the same time there was the Spanish lonja, which means slice” or “loin.” A hunk of bread or cheese? There is historical evidence for such a lunch, but more so at breakfast time.

Lunch could be influenced by the archaic though still regionally extant nuncheon.  It denoted a “light midday meal” or “slight refreshment” in the 14th-century, joining noon and scench (draught, cup). Johnson defines it “as much food as one’s hand can hold,” thus erroneously rooting it in clutch or clunch, a dialectical word for lump. Seems that meals-on-the-go aren’t so new a phenomenon. This is oddly reassuring. Somehow, though, I don’t think peasants took 15-minutes to shove food in their face while trolling Facebook.

Dinner

Do you call it supper? Or, in some places in England, Ireland, and New Zealand, tea? Or, if it’s a little early in certain parts of the US, lunch? In my household growing up it was often din-din. Which apparently is attested in 1905. E.M. Forester gets the quotation in the OED. (Check out the Harvard Dialect Survey for the supper-dinner distinction in the US. And enjoy this discussion of the words for mealtimes in English-speaking parts of the world.)

The word dinner illustrates how culture shapes not just what we eat but when. According to Heather Arndt Anderson in Breakfast: A History: “Until relatively recently, lunch was the first meal of the day, but it was called dinner” (p. 5).

Dinner is related to dine, which comes into English in the 13th-century from the Old French dîner, previously disner (eat, have a meal). This is believed to be from the late and vulgar Latin disjejunare, joining dis- (an undoing prefix) and jejunare (to fast). Also the source of French’s déjeuner and English’s archaic disjune . 

Latin has jejunus, meaning “fasting,” “hungry,” and “thin.” English has the now obsolete jejune, signifying the same, though extended to terrestrial and spiritual barrenness or meagerness. Wiktionary traces jejunus farther back, with cognates including Sanskrit’s yájati (he worships, sacrifices) and Ancient Greek’s hágios (sacred, holy). As in, Hagia SophiaNow, jejune is childish, probably because of confusion with juvenis, Latin for “youth,” and French’s subsequent jeune. 

And the jejunum? The second part of the small intestine? The Online Etymology Dictionary explains it best: “So called because it typically is found empty during dissections, perhaps because it would tend to drain in a body laid on its back.”

I think I just lost my lunch. Er, dinner. Er, breakfast.

Supper, often used interchangeably with dinner, particularly in the United States, is from sup, “to eat the evening meal.” The verb is French in origin, super, and is related to soup. Think: bread soaked in broth, which the Online Etymology Dictionary notes was a traditional French laborer’s last meal of the day. Post-classical Latin called this suppa. English has a word for thissop. Supper, sop, soup–all related to sup, a Germanic base (sip, swallow) that may be rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *seue– (to take liquid), with some generous helpings of cognates we will save for leftovers.

Breakfast for Dinner

So, what’s up with the shifting words and times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Class, custom, work, technology. Those kinds of things. You know, culture.

Here’s a taste. If you’re a farmer who wants to make most use of daylight, you’re at your work early and hungry for a big meal in the middle of the day, which would sustain you until your work is done at last light. But consider the impact of the Industrial Revolution–now you’re working long hours in a factory, thus necessitating some kind of lunch in the middle of your shift. You’d probably want some fuel before going in, too, thus making breakfast a smart idea. And electricity would make it possible to eat later in the day, which became fashionable and was emulated by the working classes.

But this is just a small slice–or should I say lunch–of the changing customs of mealtimes. The BBC has done some great work on the subject, if you’re not yet full. And if you really want to dig into it, this food timeline dishes it out.

Who eats what for when gets confusing, so let’s just smash them together. Like  brunch, which originates as English university slang. For this, the OED cites Punch magazine on August 1, 1896:

An excellent portmanteau word…indicating a combined breakfast and lunch. At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination meal, when nearer the usual hour, it is ‘brunch,’ and when nearer luncheon, it is ‘blunch.’

I, for one, will pass on that cronut for blunch. But, since hipsters killed brunch, I suppose we might have a need for blunch after all.