Posted in Japanese as a Second Language, Japanese Culture, Japanese Language, linguistics

Emoji Etymology

I encountered a delicious etymological treat this week. Emojis! 😋I did not know that “emoji” is a Japanese word. I thought it was the internet’s way of taking the word “emotion” and shortening it or combining it with something, as the internet loves to do. It was a light bulb moment. 💡 Ah, ha! This is why there are so many Japanese kanji and Japanese cultural items in the emoji library!

Let’s break down the word in Japanese.

Emoji, pronounced with a short e sounds (/ɛ/ [e as in egg 🥚]), is made up of three kanji: 絵文字. えもじ The word is more recognizably Japanese with this “e” ‘s pronunciation as it sheds the English’s long e sound (/ɪ/ [e as in emotion ❤️]) connotation. 

The first character , literally means a picture, drawing, painting, sketch, etc. I see this kanji in book stores advertising picture books for kids “絵本えほん .”

The middle character () means sentence, composition, text, writings, etc. It’s the character you see on the Google Translate app icon.  

The last kanji: ( ) means symbol, character, (i.e. kanji) hand-writing, penmanship. ✍️ It’s the “ji” in kanji.

and together become a compound kanji and means the English equivalent of “letter” (as in the letter of the alphabet) or character. Thus, capital letters in Japanese are called 大文字 おおもじ , literally “big letter,” and lowercase is 小文字 しょうもじ , you guessed it, “small letter.”

Therefore, + the compound kanji 文字 もじ = 絵文字 えもじ = picture letter = 🖼️🔤.

I adore self-explanatory words. Kanji can do this, not always, but often. Kanji allows for one to get the feeling of the world through the visual representation, even if one does not know the denotation. I can usually guess at the meaning of words without knowing how to pronounce them. English is the opposite, where one may be able to guess at the pronunciation, but not necessarily the meaning of a word. 

Kanji’s visual reliance on meaning contributes to my belief in why 習字 しゅうじ (There is that “ji” again.) i.e. calligraphy is still taught widely in Japan and is even a profession when penmanship has mostly died out in American schools. Though I know that the advent of computer keyboarding also played a vital roll in penmanship’s demise. ⌨️

If you are interested in seeing a professional calligraphist at work, check out Kayo-sensei @Kayo_Japanese_Lesson on Instagram. Her work and teaching style is exquisite.

Kanji’s powerful visual impact is another reason why I believe Japanese people are skilled at “reading the air” because they have to read the air sometimes even when they read words. Ex: 四字熟語 よじじゅくご (four-character idioms.) Americans are more verbally direct, and like meaning to be in “black and white,” i.e. ink on the paper. That idiom does much cultural talking. 

What I also find intriguing is that the Japanese language has now come full circle. ♻️ Kanji started as pictures, morphed into ideograms, and eventually was combined in Japan with a syllabary that held phonetic value, and now technology is taking people back to the origin of writing roots.   

Until recently, I never like using emojis as I thought them cheesy. 🧀 However, when I started my Instagram, I found them useful as a visual cue with a semantic tie-in to signify the switch between my writing in English and my Japanese translation. Example: I love nature! 🌱 自然 しぜん 大好だいすきです! 

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” and emojis help achieve this and aid in lending tone to compositions. 🖋️ Maybe emojis aren’t cheesy. Maybe they are the most intuitively human way of writing. 🤔

What is your favorite emoji? Why? Or write an idiom in emojis, and let’s see if I can guess which one you mean.

Works Cited

“Emoji.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 June 2020,

Posted in Japanese as a Second Language, Japanese Language, linguistics

Misheard Words

Have you ever learned a word incorrectly because you misheard it? You won’t know at the time, of course. Such a realization comes afterward when you bump up against others using the word, and your lexical paradigm doesn’t match your interlocutor’s. 

You see, our brains are meaning-making machines and will try to make meaning make sense even when it does not, and will fill in words it thinks it hears. The school game telephone (also known as Chinese whispers) exploits this property linguistically known as a mondegreen, which got its name through Sylvia Wright’s famous mishearing of the poetic line “layd him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen.” 

Mondegreen is a mondegreen!

Well, I recently had a charming mondegreen experience with a gentleman on the internet. It is apparent that he had been using the word “wheel barrel” in lieu of wheelbarrow for some time and was corrected. Seemingly with the same refusal of Sylvia Wright to accept the real term (she preferred her misheard version of the poem as it added tragic romance), he turned to Facebook for solidarity. 

Through our exchange, I informed him that he had experienced a mondegreen, and as the Facebook group I was in was about gardening, I asserted that he must have a “mondegreen thumb.”

I am proud of that pun. (I suppose I have the linguistical humor of a man as both in Japanese puns are known as 親父 おやじ ギャグ[old man jokes] and in English “dad jokes.” Pulling off lexical ambiguity is just so snicker worthy!)

Mistaking wheel barrel for wheelbarrow is a perfect example of a mondegreen as it is a near homophone and a barrel on wheels is a logical description of the item. The mind would accept this easily. Yet, in truth, it is a wheelbarrow, and if one digs a little etymologically, it too makes sense. Barrow comes from the Proto-Indo-European word “bher” which means “to carry.” It is also the root of the term to “bear” children. 

Mondegreens are found in all languages and make for useful language learning tools, i.e. mnemonics. For example, when learning English, Japanese students are taught to remember “my name is….” as マヨネーズ(mayonnaise.) Likewise, English speakers learning Japanese are taught to remember “Don’t mention it/you’re welcome” as “Don’t touch my mustache.” (どいとしまして。)

Growing up, my mother would summon us to the table for diner with a “EAT YOUR DUCKY MOSS!” for いただきます. (A phrase of gratitude said before eating. The approximate translation being: I am grateful for what I am about to receive.)

What is a misheard word that you have experienced? How did you figure out it was mondegreen? What are mondegreens that have helped you learn something? 

Works Cited

“Mondegreen.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 May 2020,

“Barrow (N.1).” Index,