I would like to ask here a similar question I have asked in the Spanish language stack. It is known that nowadays the English language has a lot a words of Japanese origin. But what was the first one to made its way into an English dictionary? What are the first English texts that use these words as part of the English language without having to explain them?

In Spanish we have both biombo (English: 'folding screen', imported from the Portuguese language, which imported it from Japanese byóbu, composed of byó 'protection' and bu 'wind') and catana (English: 'katana', from Japanese katana). Both are registered in texts from the 17th century and found in dictionaries from the 17th and early 18th centuries.

I have been trying to find some Japanese loan words in English texts using Ngram Viewer, narrowing the search between the years 1500 and 1800, with no luck so far as everything I find are false positives. One candidate I've got is typhoon which I thought it came from Japanese 台風 taifuu, but the etymology dictionaries say that it comes from Greek typhon and was influenced by Chinese taaifung.

Finally it seems that I have found a good candidate: the word soy is considered to come from from Dutch soya and Japanese 醤油 shōyu and, according to the Merriam-Webster, its first known use in English is from 1679. Etymonline says:

Etymology reflects Dutch presence in Japan before English and American merchants began to trade there.

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    @EdwinAshworth with all due respect, that depends on what you mean by "mastering English". Mastering a language may refer to speaking and writing it properly (something I have yet to learn), but it may also mean knowing about the etymology of words and their history and evolution, as well as about the history and evolution of the language itself. About your other concern, I apology and will try to find some words for myself.
    – Charlie
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 11:41
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    @EdwinAshworth This is very difficult to answer with references. Unless you have the entire text of an etymological dictionary where you can search by source language and date; existing on-lie resources don't allow that. Also, what does 'mastery' have to do with anything? Are you accidentally thinking this is ELL?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 12:33
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    In fact, Wikipedia supplies a list of Japanese loanwords. I don't see that researching to find the one that appears to be the first accepted into the English lexicon is (a) a job that other contributors here should be expected to perform, or (b) going to give a result that many others will find of value. Commented May 16, 2018 at 12:53
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    @EdwinAshworth 1) ELU is not primarily about 'correct use' of English. 'Correct usage' is the primary domain of ELL. Many topics on ELU are difficult to answer by references. Yes, I am suggesting that an answer without references is appropriate under many circumstances. Some questions haven't been asked before; how can they possibly already have printed answers?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 14:27
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    You should put your 'soy' example as an answer (it's OK to self-answer)
    – Mitch
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 15:01

1 Answer 1


The Japanese Contributions to the English Language: An Historical Dictionary (p27) has a list of words of Japanese origin that appeared in the 16th century:

  • bonze
  • buppo
  • dairi
  • Japan
  • Kannon
  • Kuge

(No Japanese words entered English before the 16th century.)

More in depth:

First of all, it's important to realize that Japan's first contact with the west was with Portuguese missionaries in 1543, according to Wikipedia.

The earliest document in English that I can find that talks about Japan is The history of trauayle in the VVest and East Indies, and other countreys lying eyther way, towardes the fruitfull and ryche Moluccaes As Moscouia, Persia, Arabia, Syria, Ægypte, Ethiopia, Guinea, China in Cathayo, and Giapan (letter written in 1565 and published in 1577). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has this as its earliest source for the word Japan, in fact. (The word Japan doesn't come directly from Japanese; it went from Japanese to Chinese to Malay before it ever reached English.) From what I read, this source mentions a lot of proper nouns taken from Japanese. Unfortunately for anyone living in this century, pretty much every single one of those words is an obsolete name or uses an obsolete spelling, so it'll take some effort to figure out what it's talking about. I already figured out some of the words:

  • Giapan/Giapon/etc. = Japan
  • Firando = Hirado, Nagasaki
  • Meaco = Kyoto
  • Bungo = The historical Bungo Province
  • Cangue = Kuge (its obsolete spelling is listed in the OED)
  • Aquita = Akita, probably
  • Amida = Amitābha, which I think ultimately comes from Sanskrit, not Japanese at all
  • Xaca = Shaka = Buddha
  • Bonzii/Bonziae = bonze
    • The important thing to realize with this is that the former comes directly from Japanese (I'm pretty sure) while the latter's etymology isn't directly from Japanese. The OED's entry for bonze, whose earliest attestation is from 1588, has this for etymology:

      probably < French bonze, < Portuguese bonzo (early modern Latin bonzus, bonzius); according to Col. Yule probably < Japanese bonzô or bonzi, < Chinese fan seng ‘religious person’, or of Japanese bo-zi, < Chinese fă-sze ‘teacher of the law’. Some of the earlier English forms appear to represent the Japanese word directly.

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