tsundoku, sudoku and otaku

Tsundoku Canvas Bags

A loanword (also loan word or loan-word) is a word adopted from one language (the donor language) and incorporated into another language without translation.

You can probably guess from the title of this article that I'm writing about three Japanese loanwords today. There are a good number of Japanese loanwords in English: karaoke, karate, tsunami, typhoon, teriyaki, sake, sushi, manga, anime, tofu, emoji, origami, shiatsu, ramen, and wasabi make up just a partial list.

Tsundoku is a new loanword for me. It's one of those words that has a larger meaning - almost a lifestyle. It is used to mean acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in your home without reading them. Related words are tsunde-oku meaning to pile things up ready for later and then leave them, and dokusho which means reading books. Tsundoku also seems to refer to those books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf or nightstand. As currently written, the word combines the characters for "pile up" (積) and the character for "read" (読) - a "reading pile."

The word dates back to the Meiji era (1868-1912) and appeared when someone, perhaps jokingly, took out that oku from tsunde oku and substituted doku (to read). Tsunde doku would be difficult to pronounce, so it was compressed into tsundoku.

I initially confused tsundoku with Sudoku, that logic-based number-placement puzzle that my wife plays every morning as a kind of meditation. No connection between the two words other than some letters. These puzzles are quite old, but for Westerners, they became familiar in the 19th century, and then in the late 1970s when they first appeared for Americans in puzzle books. At that time they were known as Number Place puzzles. In 1986, the Japanese puzzle company Nikoli published them under the name Sudoku, meaning "single number."

Otaku literally means “house" but in English and Japanese, the word is used to describe someone who spends a lot of their free time at home. In the original Japanese usage that meant home playing video games, reading manga and watching anime. In either language, this person has little or no interest in more social or outdoor activities. It isn't always considered a bad word to have attached to you since fans of anime and manga use it to describe others with similar interests.


Sleeveface is defined as "one or more persons obscuring or augmenting any part of their body or bodies with record sleeve(s) causing an illusion."

It is also a participatory photo project on Instagram. People post photos of themselves that were strategically posed with matching album covers expanding the original album cover picture.

The Vinegar Tasters

I wrote recently about Benjamin Hoff's two books The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet.

In The Tao of Pooh, Hoff writes about The Vinegar Tasters which is a traditional subject for  Chinese painting and religious and philosophical allegories.

In the painting, we see the founders of China’s three major religious and philosophical traditions -Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism - before a bowl of vinegar.

We are told that Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi have each tasted the vinegar (essence) of life. It is said that we can see their reactions on their faces. (Personally, I don't see that.)

Confucius finds it sour. The Buddha finds it bitter. Laozi finds it satisfying.

Buddhism, as describe by Siddhartha Gautama who became aware of all the ugliness in the world, finds the vinegar for what it is - bitter.

Confucius soured on life. He wrote rules to correct our errors and was disappointed with a present that did not have reverence for the past of our ancestors and their traditions. For Confucius, vinegar was a sweet wine gone sour.

Laozi (Lao Tzu), writing in his Tao Te Ching, (Tao Virtue Book) saw harmony between heaven and earth. The laws of the earth are the same as those of heaven, as opposed to any laws that men make.

With a philosophy that appealed to many more modern people, Laozi felt that human interference with the natural balance of the universe disrupts the universe's natural harmony. Laozi wanted us "to join the dust of the world” rather than isolate ourselves.

He taught that everything in the universe follows the Tao, “the Way.”

The Way can not be adequately described in words. Other religions may teach that likewise God can't be described adequately because of God's unlimited power and the limits of the human mind. But we can know that The Way exists and understand its nature.

Hoff writes that from the Taoist point of view, "sourness and bitterness come from an interfering and unappreciative mind. Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet. That is the message of The Vinegar Tasters.”