I stumbled across the Japanese word tsundoku some time ago on Buzzfeed. It was one among several Japanese words included in a list (listicle?) of “untranslatable” words from foreign languages.
First things first: This is a cool word. I feel particularly attached to it because it describes an act that I commit with alarming frequency. For various reasons, have an issue with calling this and any word “untranslatable” – but that aside, it’s still interesting to consider its etymology.
(Found in Translation by Anjana Iyer)
First off, 積ん読 [つんどく] is a compound of two words 積む + 読. Breaking that down, we have:
- 積む [つむ]: to pile up
- 読 [どく – note the on’yomi reading]: to read
Now the interesting thing is that the whole word is actually a pun on the word 積んどく[つんどく] which is a contraction of 積んでおく [つんでおく]. The latter verb ending – VERB STEM +ておく – indicates doing something and leaving it that way for a while. (Think 아/어 두다 in Korean). So,
- 積んでおく = to leave piled up for a long time
The “books” part of the word comes in when you substitute the contraction of でおく (which becomesどく) with 読. So clever! And so very Japanese. It sort of reminds me of the humor in 花より男子 with all the jokes around Domyouji’s misuse and misinterpretation of Kanji. It’s so hard to get the humor or cleverness behind Japanese wordplay when you… uh… aren’t that good at Kanji or vocabulary in general. Looking up the parts that make up this particular word was enlightening though. And it sort of made me want to pick up one of those several unread books I have lying around!