In a Word: To Japan and Back with Karaoke

The word ‘karaoke’ is the culmination of a round trip from English to Japanese and back again.


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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

If you can sing well, reality TV shows like America’s Got Talent, The Voice, and American Idol could launch you to musical superstardom. But if you’ve got a voice like a chain-smoking chimpanzee with a mouth full of marbles, you shouldn’t let that stop you! Although you won’t be signing a recording contract anytime soon, you can, thanks to Daisuke Inoue, still find your audience. Inoue is widely regarded as the inventor of karaoke.

Though karaoke — both the word and the activity — came to us from Japan, the word isn’t entirely of Japanese origin. The meaning of karaoke is pretty well known, especially among its (often inebriated) practitioners: It literally means “empty orchestra.” The kara is Japanese for “empty.” The oke comes from a shortened form of the Japanese word for “orchestra,” ­ōkesutora.

You’re probably noticing that the words orchestra and ­ōkesutora look a lot alike. That’s no accident. Ōkesutora is a Japanese loanword based on the English orchestra.

That means that when karaoke was adopted into English in the late 1970s, it marked the culmination of an etymological round trip to Japan and back — a partial reborrowing into English of a Japanese word that was originally borrowed from English.

Many would have preferred the vocal pastime remain isolated in the Land of the Rising Sun. After all, when you sing karaoke, you’re allowed to be bad — expected to be bad even. But that’s also a major part of its allure: Karaoke lets you slough off your inhibitions and become a singing fool in a safe space. The audience will cheer your half-drunk, off-key rendition of “Born to Run” as if you were Springsteen himself regardless of your lack of talent, so you have nothing to prove.

It was karaoke’s ability to bring people together to not only tolerate but celebrate our musical mediocrity that earned Daisuke Inoue the 2004 Ig Nobel Peace Prize and that solidified karaoke’s place as the ear-splitting and unapologetic joy it is in both the U.S. and Japan.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Matthew, thanks for your comments. I had no idea mine would stir up controversy, and didn’t know about it until today. It was fun putting on those shows despite the work involved, and my unit got 1st place both years!

    I also wish people in general would stop “retroactively” applying today’s uptight, neurotic consciousness on everything to times long past, that have nothing to do with our screwed up present-day perceptions.

    Debbie, thank YOU as well here!! You’re totally correct about the Halloween work party being a relaxation day where (truthfully) very little work got done. In addition our bankcard collection center was located in a business park where the public was not allowed in; like with your friend at Wells Fargo.

    I’m glad you and the people you know love my comments. That’s really nice to hear. I also agree with you on the Post’s current magazine and online format. My only complaint was a dog feature that should have been on the POST’s website semi-recently wound up on Instagram even the guys at the Apple store couldn’t figure out. Live and learn.

    Ms. Froley, Debbie and Matthew covered pretty much everything without my repeating anything to you. Although you may have meant well, you did state I was molested/sexually harassed by my female co-workers dressed as witches the 2nd year. It was s little risque fun, and no one did anything to warrant getting in trouble for, verbal/written up or fired. Today, very likely though, I suppose it WOULD be considered sexual molestation/harassment everyone would be in a lot of trouble for. The indoor smoking (still allowed then!) would be the worst offender, of course.

    Although I may have been shirtless, I did have everything else on, including the collar and cuffs. I HAVE to wonder though, if YOU wouldn’t have secretly enjoyed being at that party yourself with the other witches doing a little naughty touching of your own!

  2. Some years back I made a fool out of myself doing karaoke. Fortunately it was on a Carnival Cruise in front of people I’ll never run into again. Bob, it sounds like you had a lot of fun both years at the work Halloween parties putting on a show. If it weren’t for all of the hard work you had to put into it, I’d be jealous!

    Debbie, thank you for all your comments. You covered everything really well. Mary Ann’s were way out of line here, and she even put more on Bob Sassone’s current News of the Week. I wish people would stop applying today’s neurotic political correctness to times and events of decades ago. Everyone criticized here, pay no attention, you’re all on the right track track. Long live today’s Saturday Evening Post!

  3. This is a timely article I discovered just now, as I was at a party just last night where there was some karaoke but I didn’t participate.

    Mary Ann, with all due respect to your feelings, I think you’re way off base in your criticisms of Andy Hollandbeck, Bob McGowan, jr., and the current format of the Post. Andy’s word features are fascinating and entertaining, and Bob’s comments are a great addition to them and all the others he adds comments to here.

    If you read Bob’s comments correctly, you would NOT have made such misguided, inaccurate comments and conclusions yourself. He was discussing something related to karaoke that occurred in the mid-1980’s, 33-34 years ago; nowhere near the present. He and his co-workers were having fun on Halloween Day. I did the same thing back then at work on Halloween, and it was perfectly normal for that time. Most likely the office provided it as a fun day of relaxation for a job that likely wasn’t otherwise. Collecting money from people isn’t easy. You were not there Mary Ann, and really have no business judging him. By today’s standards, yeah, it sounds far out but not for THAT time, which was much less serious and uptight; a completely different world. Bankcard collection centers are not “banks” open to the public by the way. I had a friend who worked in one for Wells Fargo. Bob I always love your comments, and so does everyone I know that reads the Post’s online features. We have for a long time.

    Also Mary Ann, you’re incorrect in your statements on the Post as a publication otherwise. The 80s, 90s and even 2000’s were very different times, and the Post has changed from those times to suit today, especially during this decade! I’m sure Dr. Cory enjoys today’s publication as much as we all do. So Andy, keep up the good work and don’t listen to this voice of descension. Bob, don’t you either and let her prevent you from continuing your wonderful comments, please. Mary Ann, please think before you write after this, okay?


    Debbie Tennant

  4. Here you are Andy Hollandbeck, the managing editor of my once beloved Post talking about a foolish activity inebriated prople do at parties, intentionally avoiding using the word drunk. Recently you wrote about the word ‘vanilla’ and by the 4th paragraph were actually making public the connections to one’s private parts!

    Once again Bob was “contributing” as he so frequently does. His comments were not too bad I suppose other than praising and encouraging you. The ones he makes here though on this karaoke feature border on I don’t know what. Outrageous, strange sounding songs, restaurants with offensive names, a disrespectfully named drink he consumed at lunch with his female co-workers. And for what? To sing songs at a Halloween bankcard party. Whoever heard of such a thing? At least the first year he wore a tuxedo. The second year, not even a shirt! He even admits that some of these women groped him and he had no problem with that. No shock there. These women were molesting him, and it is still sexual harassment. Oh yes. And he’s grateful they didn’t get in trouble. They would now, including him, as well they should. If you ask me, they all should have been suspended without pay, lucky they weren’t terminated. I am still taking the Post Mr. Hollandbeck, though it is now against my better judgement. The magazine was in a far better format if you ask me, between the Eighties to about 10 years ago when Dr. Cory was running it and making the decisions. She would never allow such shenanigans to go on in her magazine or website. I can only compare the differences to that of Nancy Reagan and her daughter Patty Davis.

  5. This certainly is interesting on the origin of the word ‘karaoke’. I knew it was was Japanese, but didn’t care enough to look it up online otherwise. Being a non-drinker (since ’86) helps make it easier to avoid getting caught up in the ‘k’ situation at various parties every now and then.

    I HAVE lip-synced at a couple of work adult Halloween parties in the mid-’80s at Security Pacific’s bankcard collections office. The first time was to Falco’s ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ which was quite difficult. I was the only guy in my unit and one of the girls had access to the 1700’s costume dept. at one of the studios for herself and the other gals—and the right tux for me.

    It was tough for the ladies, with the wigs and all, but fun. I had it easy with just the tux and slicked back hair. The song was hard part, trust me. (Thank God it wasn’t Der Kommissar!!) I pulled it off with lots of practice using the video, and (back then) a couple of Kamikaze’s at lunch beforehand at The Jolly Roger.

    The following year I got talked into being a Chippendale dude (no dancing) and lip synced the much easier ‘Puttin on the Ritz’ by Taco. The ladies wore a variety of the much easier witch costumes, some groped the shirtless me (no one got in trouble back in that era at all fortunately)! This was preceded by lunch and a couple of Kamikaze’s at Fuddrucker’s. After that I quit even casual drinking.


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