While in Asia, do as the Asians and over here that means one thing: karaoke. Even in the most rural village in Vietnam, it’s almost impossible to walk down the street without hearing the distant sound of a tone-deaf k-pop aficionado, no Dutch courage necessary. Maybe it’s one of the better-known word origin stories but I couldn’t stay here without giving the continent’s favourite pastime a mention.

Karaoke comes from the Japanese words kara from karappo which means ‘empty’ and oke, a clipped from of okesutura which literally means ‘orchestra’. So karaoke is an empty orchestra because the songs are recorded without the voice of the singer.

The fad allegedly started when a singer failed to turn up to their scheduled performance in a bar in Japan. To solve the lack of entertainment, the bar owner played the backing track and encouraged the customers to sing along.

Others say that karaoke started in the 1970s when Daisuke Inoue, a Japanese singer, recorded his songs and recorded it for people to sing along too.

On the other hand, karaoke may come from Asia but the world record for the greatest number of people singing karaoke at one time, 120,000 people in fact, belongs to Robbie Williams in the UK and the record for the longest karaoke marathon of 1,295 songs, lasting 101 hours, 59 minutes and 15 seconds, was set by Leonardo Polverelli, an Italian. So it seems it’s not just Asians but the everyone else too who have a soft spot for a bit of a sing-song.


Going Ape


Entries into Word Stories have been admittedly sparse as of late for no better reason than that I’ve been travelling about Asia and while rainforest and pagodas have abounded, wifi access has been patchy to say the least. Saying that, interesting languages have been all over the place and, as always, some of these exotic words have wound up in English. At the moment, I’m in Malaysia so that calls for a look at a nice donation from the Malays: orangutan.

The word comes fairly simply from the Malay version orang utan where orang means ‘man’ and utan means ‘woods’ so orangutan is ‘man of the woods’. It entered English via Dutch in the 1690s. You can still see orang around in Malaysia in words like orang asli, who were the original Malay natives, or orang Malayu, which means the Malay people.

The only point of debate is about whether or not the word for ‘man’ was actually used to refer to the ape, since the Malays already had a specific word for the apes, maias. One relatively likely possibility is that the word was used by town-dwellers to refer to the tribes in the forest on the Sunda Islands and that the Europeans simply mistook the reference for the animals instead. Whatever happened, the Malays now use the word to refer to the apes too.

The first citation of the word comes is found in the Historiae naturalis et medicae Indiae orientalis by Jacobus Bontius in 1631. According to Bontius, the Malays claimed that the ape could, but preferred not to, talk. The orangutan may be one of the most intelligent primates but we know now that language would be impossible for it. Among other limitations, they have a higher larynx and thinner tongues than humans. Still, that hasn’t stopped us from trying to make the ape talk. In 1978, studies began with an orangutan named Chantek at the University of Tennesse. Over eight years, Chantek successfully learnt 150 signs as well as both British and American sign language but never quite got hold of language as we know it.