“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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in July 2014.

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Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Learn 46 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

“Inemuri,” the Japan­ese Art of Tak­ing Pow­er Naps at Work, on the Sub­way, and Oth­er Pub­lic Place

1,000+ His­toric Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed Books Dig­i­tized & Put Online by the Smith­son­ian: From the Edo & Meji Eras (1600–1912)

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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Comments (4)
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  • Marialba Martinez says:

    About 10 years ago I moved and the enor­mous amount of books 📚 that I had (8 full box­es) I donat­ed to a local library. I kept about 20-some­thing books that I hadn’t read and thought that was a lot.

    I then bought a Kin­dle and start­ed down­load­ing books whether I had time to read them or not. I have amassed about 1500 books of which about 100–150 I haven’t had the time to read. That num­ber could be high­er! But I just can’t resist a good book if I see it! One of these days I’ll catch up!

  • Michael Edits says:

    This nev­er hap­pens in my house.

  • Keenan says:

    You call it “book hoard­ing” in Eng­lish. Cut it out with the weird fetishiza­tion of Japan.

  • (Ms) Marty Fisher says:

    hira­gana いっしょうけんめい, roma­ji isshōken­mei)
    MEANING1. for dear life; as hard as one can; to the best of one’s abil­i­ty
    I love this sin­gle word that sums up so much mean­ing & emo­tion.

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