Learned #20: Tsundoku

Stack Me Up!

There's a special place in linguistic hell for anyone who claims that word X from language Y is so totally unique* that it can’t be translated into English! As in this article from the Guardian. Or this one from Mental Floss. Or this one from Babel Magazine. Each and every one of these authors - perfectly nice people in real life, I'm sure - is going to the special hell.

What these special-hell bound authors mean is that there is no easy one to one translation of these non-English words and concepts. But that's not nearly as punchy, so we end up with “untranslatable”. And, pedantic though it may be, this bugs the crap out of me. So, today we’re looking at one particular “untranslatable” word and the articles that list it.

  • What We're Learning: The Fine Art of Stacking Books

  • What We're Reading: Lost in Translation

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Words, words, words!

Let's get to it.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

What We're Learning:


Here are the kanji that comprise the Japanese word "tsundoku:"

  • 積むtsumu・to stack, to pile up, to accumulate.

  • 読むyomu / doku・to read.

Together, as per Jisho.org, they mean:

  1. (n) (suru verb) buying books and not reading them; stockpiling books​

  2. (n) books bought but not read​

BBC News goes a little further with their definition:

a Japanese term used to describe a person who owns a lot of unread literature…"tsundoku" has the meaning of buying reading material and piling it up.

But then Buzzfeed (I know, I know) adds:

often piled with other unread books.

(Bolding mine, for emphasis.)

It’s not until we get to Wikipedia that we start to see the reasons for the inclusion of the latter phrases in the definitions:

Tsundoku (Japanese: 積ん読) is acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one's home without reading them.

The term originated in the Meiji era (1868-1912) as Japanese slang. It combines elements of 「積んでおく」 tsunde-oku (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and 「読書」 dokusho (reading books). It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf. As currently written, the word combines the characters for "pile up" (積) and the character for "read" (読).**

Sounds great! I love this idea. I have a big pile of books next to my bed. Books I have bought and fully intend to read. Someday. I have an even bigger virtual pile stacking up on my computer and iPad and other devices. I intend to read all those books someday, too. Up until now I’ve called it my bookstack. How convenient it will be to have a concise, easily defined word! Except…

The Japanese people I spoke with (about a dozen people ranging in age from 13 to 40ish) did not know the word. Once they see it written out, they generally get the gist, but it’s not an everyday utterance by any means.

And that’s the problem. For the most part, the authors of these articles don’t seem to speak Japanese; even if they do, it’s doubtful that they can speak all of the languages whose words appear in their articles, which casts doubt on the veracity of their translations and explanations.

I realize I’m being more than a little pedantic in this. I also realize that these articles are not really advocating for the inclusion of dozens of new phrases in English dictionaries. Rather, they’re collating interesting bits of trivia in list-based articles. Welcome to the modern web.

But consider: One of English’s major strengths is its ability to pull in needed words from other languages. But an equal strength is its ability to create new words out of portmanteaus. Thus, while we could import “tsundoku,” we could just as easily coin “bookstack.” Or, “bookpile.” Which at least has the precedent of “dogpile” to lend veracity.

There are arguments to be made that by using a foreign word you are expressing a nuance that does not exist in English. But you'd be hard pressed to sustain that in the face of having to explain, for the nth time, what, exactly, you mean by tsundoku. And then you just end up looking pretentious. Especially if you don't actually speak Japanese...

But getting back to “tsundoku” itself, one thing the articles linked to above take pains to make clear is that there is no negative connotation to the phrase. Unlike “bookpile” or “bookstack,” which, conceivably could be taken as in a critical context. As in, “Stop adding to your bookpile, already! You’re going to make the floor give way!”

That could be valid. Maybe, in the same way that “wabi sabi” briefly transformed everyone’s old junk into works of timeless ennui, “tsundoku” can turn that musty pile of unread books into something grander and altogether more eloquent. We can hope.

Further Reading:

*I know, “unique” is an all-encompassing word. Things can’t be “so,” or “very,” or “too” unique. I watched the West Wing. I know things. But it’s a pretty good rhetorical trick, isn’t it?

**The Wikipedia article also contains this wonderful quote from A. Edward Newton: “Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity ... we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access reassurance.

What We’re Reading:

Image from Ella Frances Sanders on Twitter

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World

by Ella Frances Sanders

Contrary to everything I just wrote above, I love this book and use it in my classroom all the time. It has prompted endless discussions about the nature of languages and words and led to conversation after conversation about how to move ideas from one language to another.

Partly it’s the nature of the content, but the packaging makes this book a work of art; Sanders is more of an illustrator than author, but her delicate watercolors take the core concept of each word and give it a visual context that can help solidify its meaning in the reader’s mind.

Bonus: If Sanders’ effort is not to your liking, another illustrator, Anjana Iyer, has created a similar set of illustrations as part of the 100 Days Project. She gives credit for the words themselves to Adam Jacot de Boinod and his book The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

It ought to be no surprise that language learning blogs and apps put out lists like this on a regular basis. After all, what better way to get people interested in learning a new language (or in buying your translation service) via your blog, app, what-have-you? Here are a few I found while researching this essay:

Bonus round: Other articles on the term “tsundoku” that use the BBC story as their main source: Insider, Mental Floss.)


Lost in Translation is not a perfect movie. Hell, there are a whole lot of people in Japan who actively loathe the movie. I’m not one of them. I love the movie because I love Bill Murray and because I identify with Bob Harris, the character Murray plays, more than I like to admit to in public. But more than all of that, I love the movie because its closing scene is the best damned music video for The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey anyone’s ever made. Period.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.