“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? Contem­plate the mat­ter for a while.

The illus­tra­tion above was made when a Red­di­tor 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: 

The Virtue of Own­ing Books You Haven’t Read: Why Umber­to Eco Kept an “Antili­brary”

An Archive of Vivid­ly Illus­trat­ed Japan­ese School­books, from the 1800s to World War II

The Japan­ese Fairy Tale Series: The Illus­trat­ed Books That Intro­duced West­ern Read­ers to Japan­ese Tales (1885–1922)

A Won­der­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed 1925 Japan­ese Edi­tion of Aesop’s Fables by Leg­endary Children’s Book Illus­tra­tor Takeo Takei

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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  • John Jackson says:

    Although this is a repost of a post over a decade ago, I’m sur­prised with the lit­tle bit of mis­in­for­ma­tion still present. 積んでおく is short­ened to 積んどく (tsun­doku) in speech just like many con­trac­tions in Eng­lish (like “gonna”). There was nev­er a “swap out” of “oku” to “doku.” Say­ing Tsun­deoku faster results in tsun­doku, just like when say­ing going to/gonna in Eng­lish. Also, “tsunde doku,” does not exist gram­mat­i­cal­ly.

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