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.
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