“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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Comments (34)
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  • Gabriel says:

    電車積ん読 for ebooks might work

  • Kenny Cross says:

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

  • Michia says:

    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.

  • Cyber Killer says:

    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.

  • Sat says:

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

  • pasques says:

    tsun­dokin­dle seems pret­ty obvi­ous?

  • doppelganglander says:

    Unwatched shows on your video stream­ing device = tsun­deroku?

  • Mark McGovern says:

    Do the Japan­ese have a word for the feel­ing that they have been on so many heaps and hordes of dif­fer­ent women through their john activ­i­ties that they are almost repelled by their own selves?

    I dont’ mean a feel­ing of sin or guilt but just a feel­ing that it is all too much, the end­less mess­ing around with point­less activ­i­ties in this regard.

    Anoth­er good Japan­ese inven­tion would be a word for that per­cep­tion of the heaps and heaps of cred­it card receipts, sym­bol­iz­ing meals and hotel rooms and enter­tain­ment and impulse buys for a life­time, which hads up to a moun­tain of stuff for which one is still in debt? I always laugh at one fel­low I know, under such a moun­tain, who says his first meal out paid with a cred­it card, back in his youth, was a cheap Chi­nese lunch, yet it pings in his mem­o­ry as the begin­ning of the end of his finan­cial hap­pi­ness.

  • Patricia Anne Elford says:

    I’ve already mis­used this word because I under­stood it to mean hav­ing piles of books every­where, as we do, but most of them ARE being read or HAVE BEEN been read and WILL BE READ again, d.v. Is there a vari­a­tion on the word which suits our sit­u­a­tion, please?

  • Annie says:

    Ditto‑I have long ago run out of book­shelves, but they’re read/being read/will soon be read…though I do like to have a book or two unread. It’s love­ly to redis­cov­er a for­got­ten book.

    How do books mul­ti­ply them­selves-when­ev­er I put up new book­cas­es, the books already on shelves fill the new shelves and I have no more space than I had before. It’s ridicu­lous & I can nev­er under­stand how this hap­pens.

  • Annie says:

    Some peo­ple still think that vio­lence is all right when it’s done to a child. A burst eardrum will heal itself and any loss of hear­ing is tem­po­rary, but it’s still a ter­ri­ble thing to do. I can’t see why so many peo­ple con­sid­er that a lev­el of vio­lence that would be assault if done to an adult is ‘dis­ci­pline’ or ‘good dis­ci­pline’ for chil­dren.

    I must say that some adults do seem to be ask­ing for a good smack (not on the ear) with their smug, know-it-all faces.

  • XAos says:

    Books I invari­ably read with­in a few days. Except for ref­er­ence books like the Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca, where I read a few para­graphs, now & then…

    New DVD’s how­ev­er, those just stack up.

  • Robert Lovejoy says:

    My pro­posed word for a list of e‑books wait­ing to be read is “equeue”.

  • Yuki says:

    In Eng­lish, it’s called “bib­lio­phile”. I’m going to bor­row Wikipedia here:

    “Accord­ing­ly, a bib­lio­phile is an indi­vid­ual who loves books. A book­worm (some­times pejo­ra­tive) is some­one who loves books for their con­tent, or who oth­er­wise loves read­ing. The adjec­tive form of the term is bib­lio­philic. A bib­lio­phile may be, but is not nec­es­sar­i­ly, a book col­lec­tor.”

    I’m a bib­lio­phile.
    1. I buy books because I want to read them.
    2. I buy books because I love books.
    3. I buy books because I want to col­lect books.

    But it does­n’t mean I’ve read every­thing I bought. In fact, I have more books I haven’t read than books that I’ve read.

  • efschumacher says:

    Unread e‑books would be ‘Tsun­Den’ = unread elec­trons. Sor­ry I don’t have a Kan­ji mak­er handy, but it’s the same ‘den’ as in Den­Den­Town down there in Nip­pon­Bashi.

  • Brandelune says:

    The ety­mol­o­gy is prob­a­bly a bit dif­fer­ent:

    As you wrote tsunde-oku means pile up and it often short­ened as tsun­doku in the spo­ken lan­guage because it is easier/faster to say. This short­en­ing also hap­pens with oth­er verbs that share the same struc­ture. And since the new *doku* end­ing hap­pens to also be one of the read­ings of the char­ac­ter used for “read­ing” (読, as in 読書), the “wag around the turn of the cen­tu­ry” actu­al­ly cre­at­ed the pun.

  • Doncot says:

    Actu­al­ly, “tsun­doku” dif­fers con­cep­tu­al­ly from “bib­lio­phile”.
    Bib­lio­phile refers to a “[per­son] who loves book”, while tsun­doku refers to a “[situation/condition or habit] of one acquir­ing books but not read­ing them”.
    What is dis­tinct about “tsun­doku” is that when used, it implies the “mot­tainai (waste­ful) feel­ing” (anoth­er known Japan­ese con­cept) that one should read the books rather than just col­lect­ing them.

  • Kuroi says:

    den­sha? You prob­a­bly mean den­shi.

    I’ll fix that for you: 電子積ん読

  • cromercrox says:

    I’d like to pro­pose a deriv­a­tive word, ‘tsun­do­queue’, mean­ing the list of books rec­om­mend­ed to you by friends, which you (and they) know you’ll prob­a­bly nev­er get round to read­ing. As in “thanks for telling me about that book, it sounds inter­est­ing — I’ll add it to my tsun­do­queue.”

  • Sonomama says:

    You are right. There are oth­er verbs that have this type of short­en­ing when it’s fol­lowed by ‘oku’. For exam­ple, ‘ho-otte-oku’(to leave it as it is)=‘hottoku’.

  • Kshema says:

    This post remind­ed me of a series of illus­tra­tions called “Untrans­lat­able Words.” Beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions to show words of dif­fer­ent lan­guages that are used to describe cer­tain feel­ings.

    Fol­low this link to see them:


  • Kevin says:

    Love the illus­tra­tion.…

  • curmudgeon says:

    Sure­ly Red­di­tor Wemedge is a pen-name! As a real name it’s just too good to be true.

  • OppedOut says:

    Won­der­ing if the tsun in tsun­doku is of the same root as tsuna­mi? It cer­tain­ly feels that way in my place!

  • Talya says:

    I’m work­ing on solv­ing this issue. I am using Jour­nal 7 to cre­ate a note on every new book I have, includ­ing ebooks. I list the name, author, when/where I bought it. Then when I fin­ished it and what I thought of it — key points about the book. It’s help­ing me “see” all the books I still want to read.

  • Jasmin says:


    Even though thats a rather old post I got­ta reply to it. In Ger­man, we call this sta­ple “SUB” (short for Stapel unge­le­sen­er Büch­er).

    It would work per­fect­ly for Eng­lish as well — sta­ple (of) unread books :)

    Idk if that is even already used but yeah

    X Jas­min

  • Atila says:

    we are not japs

    read the books

  • atila says:

    if we want to speak Jew or jap we will.typical of them to force their way in and rape us (our lan­guage).

  • greg says:

    read the damned books

  • NancyP says:

    Is there a word for “books bought for a rainy/snowy day”? The book equiv­a­lent of the cans of soup in the back of the pantry, or of the bot­tle of spe­cial wine or liqueur saved for times when you need a treat?

  • TR says:

    Tsundle(積んどる) is still a pun bit accent­ed.

  • Anna says:

    How about unread and unwant­ed email? Saved but un-revis­it­ed web­sites?

  • Masa says:

    An unwant­ed e‑mail is trans­lat­ed into 迷惑メール (mei­waku mail, which is an annoy­ing e‑mail, a junk e‑mail, a spam e‑mail, and/or an unso­licit­ed e‑mail). 迷惑メール does­n’t have the mean­ing of “unread”, and 未読メール (midoku mail) has the mean­ing. So, if you want to say both mean­ing i.e. an “unread” and “unwant­ed” email, we (i.e. Japan­ese peo­ple) can say 未読の迷惑メール (midoku no mei­waku mail).
    We nev­er say e.g. “Tsun-webs” about book­mark­ing but un-revis­it­ed web­sites. :-p There is no Japan­ese word about it.

  • managuzman says:

    Just here from Vsauce’s video.Great con­tent

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