Charinko etymology and loan words

Charinko ( チャリンコ ) is a Japanese word for “bicycle.” For years I’ve thought the shortened “chari” was a loan word from the English “chariot.” I was wrong.

As with any dynamic language, the Japanese borrow heavily from other cultures to create new words. These new words are transliterated, transvocalized, often shortened, and sometimes combined with other words to become gairaigo — a “foreign language” word. Anime is a familiar example — it’s the Japanese word for cartoons and is derived from the English “animation.” Kosupure (which has returned to the USA as “cosplay”) is another gairaigo that comes from “costume play.” Karaoke combines and contracts Japanese with English to create a new word: kara means empty, and oke is a dramatically clipped rendition of the English word “orchestra.”

Japan: Woman riding bicycle in spring time

I’ve always been amused with manshon — this obviously comes from the English “mansion,” but in Japan, a manshon is a few hundred square feet of living space in a multilevel concrete building. Other examples:

  • amerikandoggu is an “American Dog”, which refers to a corn dog (which, in Japan, are made with surimi or fish paste and flavored with Chinese style mustard).
  • eakon (pronounce “eh konn”) is an air conditioner.
  • famikon for Family Computer is the Japanese name for Nintendo Entertainment System.
  • haikara from “high collar” is an archaic word for somebody who wears a Japanese interpretation of Western fashions. The photo of the “Bicycle Geisha Girl” posted at Bike Hugger the other week is an example, believe it or not, of western haikara style.
  • pan, the Japanese word for bread, is obviously derived from Portuguese. Japan had only very limited contact with Europeans through the Portuguese and Dutch before Matthew Perry sailed into Yokosuka with his black ships.
  • tenpura — the familiar deep fried “tempura” style of cooking is another Portuguese contribution, from the Latin tempora which referred to Catholic holy days when Portuguese missionaries traditionally fried fish and vegetables for their meals. Modern Portuguese still fry up eixinhos da horta — basically fish and chips — during Lent.
  • ranningushatsu from “running shirt” is a tank top.

Edo period woman on bicycle

Given the huge list of loan words in Japanese, I assumed “chari was another one from ‘chariot.’ A Japanese speaker informed me otherwise! Charinko is even on a list of mistaken gairaigo words.

Chari is a shortened form of the Japanese word “charinko.” There are three theories on the etymology of “charinko”:

  • Onomatopoeia: “charinko” comes from the sound of a bicycle bell. Think “gah-ring gah-ring” or “chah-ring!”
  • Korean: The first bikes were imported from Korea, where bikes are jajeongeo (or chachongo). This seems to be the most accepted theory, and still makes charinko a gairaigo, just from Korean instead of English. Jajeongeo is a combination word formed from combining Korean words for “self” + “rolling” + “cart” — in other words, a self propelled cart.
  • Homonym: This seems to be more of a folk etymology. “Chariko” is a similar word that means a child thief. Children used to steal bikes so often that the act of stealing the bike became the name of the stolen object itself!

Thanks a zillion to J’Adore le velo for the research and translation help!


  1. That’s really interesting. I’m living and biking in Tokyo right now, and I didn’t know where Mamachari came form at all. The 2nd theory stands out to me, seeing as ‘jitensha’, the most common used word for bicycle consists of 3 kanji meaning ‘self’-‘turning’-‘car/wheeled vehicle’. 自転車 Thanks for the article!

  2. I have serched the origin of “charinko” by Google, then I have gotten the same answer; the three. I think 1th is best answer because when I was a child we always found ring bell on every bicycle, and the bell rang “charin charin”. And I have not heard of 2nd answer for thirty years. Anyway, charinko is almost all Jaapanese original word^^.

  3. ichibankyoushi
    My name is Charlie, chari pronounced in Japanese and I have often wondered how i was related to a jitensha.

  4. Manshon only comes indirectly from the stadard English meaning of mansion. More specifically it comes from ‘mansion blocks’, a kind of Edwardian era block of flats built in posh areas of towns and ushering in a new kind of semi-high rise living for people with money. Mansion blocks were spacious and well appointed with a style that makes them look a bit like mansions….

    So, from there you get Japanese manshons, and even the ‘wanrum manshon’, which you’d call a bedsit in the UK.

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