Spanish and English have both borrowed the Japanese word karaoke, which refers to a form of entertainment (but not necessarily for listeners) in which someone sings along to an orchestral version of a song whose lyrics appear on a television or other monitor. We note that Spanish preserves the Japanese pronunciation of karaoke, which an English speaker usually changes to something like carry-okie—and let’s hope said speaker does better carrying a tune than accurately pronouncing the word karaoke.

The first element of what turns out to be a compound is Japanese kara, meaning ‘void’ or empty,’ because the recorded version of the song that’s being played is ’empty’ of a vocal part. The second half of the compound will come as a surprise, because oke is a shortened form of ōkesutora. Not surprised yet? Then I’ll add that ōkesutora is the closest that Japanese could come to pronouncing orchestra when it borrowed the word from English.

But wait: there’s another surprise in store. We now use orquestra/orchestra to mean ‘a (usually) large group of instruments playing together,’ but the original Greek orchēstra designated, with respect to a theater, ‘the space in front of a stage where the chorus would perform.’ In fact the word was based on Greek orkheisthai, which meant ‘to dance,’ so over the centuries the people involved went from dancing to declaiming to playing musical instruments.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 20:52:23

    Guilty as charged. I’ve “carry-okied” with the best of them. I don’t remember ever speaking the word, but that’s the pronunciation I’ve used when I read it.

    I found this little mp3 clip posted by a woman who lived in Japan for a time. No “carry-okie” there.

    The history of “orchestra” is interesting, too. Did “orchestra pit” gain currency after “orchestra” as a group of musicians became common, and there was a need to distinguish between the musicians and the place where they played?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 27, 2014 @ 22:05:43

      As your sound clip makes clear, the Japanese pronunciation, which Spanish preserves, is approximately ka-ra-oh-keh. It’s not hard, so I don’t know why Americans have so much trouble with it. Compare the way harakiri has gotten transformed to harry-carry.

      I believe you’re right when it comes to the origin of “orchestra pit.” We could say the orchestra got pitted against the place where it plays.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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