Many Japanese words used in English began as cultural borrowings to introduce new concepts. There are words from traditional Japanese culture, such as geisha, tatami, karate and onsen; words used in the appreciation of nature (sakura, bonsai); and to describe delectable cuisine (sashimi, sushi, sukiyaki, sake). Even the fifth taste – unami – is Japanese.
In contemporary culture there are manga, karaoke and kawaii. Anime is clipped from animashon (Japanese for “animation”, and borrowed back into English to describe Japanese cartoons). Karaoke comprises kara (“empty”) and oke, clipped from okesutora, the Japanese for “orchestra”. But some words are not so obviously from Japan. Hong Kong is home to many “tycoons” – isn’t that derived from Chinese? And head “honcho” must be Basque, right?
Let’s lay those two myths to rest: both words come from Japan, a result of contact between America and the Land of the Rising Sun, initially with diplomatic and military contexts.
The story of “tycoon” begins in feudal Japan, which had been closed to external trade for two centuries when American naval officer Commodore Matthew Perry, aiming to open commercial relations, arrived in 1853.
Perry carried a letter from the United States president, insisting on negotiating with the highest-ranked Japanese dignitary. The ruling Tokugawa shogun (hereditary commander-in-chief, with de facto absolute power) required a title for diplomatic communications that conveyed more grandeur than “supreme military commander”, yet not using “emperor” or “king”. Thus came into being taikun, or “great lord” or “prince” (from the Chinese ta kiun).
Both the negotiations and the title were successful: the word appears in various accounts from 1857 that describe the “Tycoon of Japan”, then starts being used by Americans, with Abraham Lincoln’s two most trusted aides referring to him as “the Tycoon”, noted in diaries from 1861. By the end of the first world war, the word was no longer associated with government but with private wealth and power.
Decades later, the word “honcho” – Japanese hanch ō , orōarmy “squad leader” (from the Chinese bānzhǎng, meaning “group leader”) – was encountered by second world war troops in the Pacific. This was documented in a 1945 newspaper, in a New Zealander’s 1947 memoir, and in the diary of an American prisoner of war, which tells of “honchos” who ran his camp.
During the Korean war, “honcho” was used to refer to Korean corporals fighting alongside US troops. The word became mainstream a decade later, when, in 1964, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater described his campaign manager as “the honcho out here” and “the head honcho”. The alliterative word is now a popular descriptor for any person in charge.