“Tsundoku,” the Japanese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the English Language


There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

The word dates back to the very beginning of modern Japan, the Meiji era (1868-1912) and has its origins in a pun. Tsundoku, which literally means reading pile, is written in Japanese as 積ん読. Tsunde oku means to let something pile up and is written 積んでおく. Some wag around the turn of the century swapped out that oku (おく) in tsunde oku for doku (読) – meaning to read. Then since tsunde doku is hard to say, the word got mushed together to form tsundoku.

As with other Japanese words like karaoke, tsunami, and otaku, I think it’s high time that tsundoku enter the English language. Now if only we can figure out a word to describe unread ebooks that languish on your Kindle. E-tsundoku? Tsunkindle? Visit our collection of Free eBooks and contemplate the matter for a while.

The illustration above was made when Redditor Wemedge asked his daughter to illustrate the word “Tsundoku,” and she did not disappoint.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his art blog Veeptopus.

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  1. Gabriel says . . . | July 24, 2014 / 7:04 am

    電車積ん読 for ebooks might work

  2. Kenny Cross says . . . | July 24, 2014 / 8:25 pm

    Love this word. Love Japanese words. I shall start using this immediately.

  3. Michia says . . . | July 26, 2014 / 6:30 am

    Correction on Backpfeifengesicht – not asking for fist, asking for a slap. Very different. A slap can be delivered with some vigor and, if given with a cupped hand over the ear, can even bust an eardrum. Favored method of instant child correction back in the day.

  4. Cyber Killer says . . . | July 29, 2014 / 6:50 am

    Do they have a word for such computer games? My steam library got quite huge after all these sales and bundles, I got no time to play all this ;-P.

  5. Sat says . . . | July 29, 2014 / 1:50 pm

    For computer games, there is another word, 積みゲー(Tsumi Game)!

  6. pasques says . . . | October 7, 2014 / 4:04 pm

    tsundokindle seems pretty obvious?

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