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Gairaigo refers to the assimilation of words from foreign languages into Japanese syllabics. Some examples include barcode hair, salaryman, and tempura. The word gairaigo literally means "language coming from the outside": the gai is the same root found in the word gaijin.

While Japanese has been importing Chinese vocabulary for centuries, Chinese doesn't count as gairaigo: Chinese loanwords are called kango, or "Sino-Japanese" in English linguistbabble. The history of gairaigo can thus be traced back to the days of Francis Xavier in the 1500's, when Japan made its first direct contacts with Christendom. During the late 1500's, Japanese brought in many new words from Spanish and Portuguese, often assigning them their own kanji. The fried dish tempura, for instance, comes from the Portuguese word tempero "flavoring."

The next round of gairaigo came during the Edo period, between 1600 and 1868, when Japan was shut off from the rest of the world, with the sole exception of Dutch traders at Nagasaki. During this period, Japanese slowly assimilated a handful of Dutch words, including bîru for "beer" and kôhî for "coffee."

Following the arrival of Matthew Perry and the subsequent Meiji Restoration, many German words, such as arubaito "part-time job," began entering the Japanese lexicon. Many of the German gairaigo found in use today are in the field of medicine: shâre "laboratory dish," gipusu "cast," etc. Since around the early 1900's, however, virtually all new gairaigo have been derived from English words.

Gairaigo are almost always written in katakana.

One of the confusing aspects of these loanwords, at least for foreign students of Japanese, is that they tend to morph so much in their transliteration that they often lose their connection to the word they came from. Anime from "animation" is a tamer example of this: try abu from "shock absorber," zenekon from "general contractor," or purogure from "prog rock," and you can see how ugly the conversion can be.

Another common practice in Japan today is to take English words and string them together into new concepts that aren't found in real English. "Barcode hair" and "salaryman" both fall into this category. Other examples include paper driver, minus ceiling, lobbyism, loose socks, market in, parasite single, and plus alpha.

When gairaigo are strung together into phrases, you get wasei eigo.

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