I was discussing with a friend about the word 人孔, and I know I read (or was told) that it's taken from the English "manhole", literally juxtaposing the kanji for "man" with that for "hole", since for a while that's what Japanese did, giving a kanji writing to new concept/words instead of just taking them (like with ミス); I was unable to find where I read/was told that, though, and searching on Google was unhelpful. I was just able to find that in Chinese the word is different, so it's not a loan from there.

Can someone confirm or deny this etymology? Is 人孔 a native word, or does it derive from English?

Edit: in the comments Leebo stresses that Chinese is listed in the Wikitionary entry for 人孔, which I misread in my research.

  • 2
    The Wiktionary entry for it lists Chinese as well. That doesn't mean that it didn't come from English, but it's there.
    – Leebo
    Dec 5 '19 at 10:07
  • 2
    Just like 「鉄道」 is from German.
    – user4032
    Dec 5 '19 at 15:31

This is a linguistic phenomenon called "calque" or "loan translation". In Japanese, it is called 「翻訳借用{ほんやくしゃくよう}」.

A calque is a word that has been borrowed from another language by the method of literally translating the foreign word "component-by-component".

This is, therefore, a completely different method from homophonic translation (aka 'katakanization'), which takes the form of, for instance, "manhole" to 「マンホール」.

The more 'famous' calques used in Japanese include:

・「鉄道{てつどう}」 from "Eisenbahn" in German (literally, "iron" + "road")

・「脚注{きゃくちゅう}」 from "footnote" in English

・「鍵盤{けんばん}」 from "keyboard" in English

Whether 「人孔{じんこう}」 was calqued directly from English into Japanese or it came via Chinese, it would be safe to label the word as a calque.

By the way, 「人孔」 is not a common word at all in Japanese. It sounds terribly technical. Wonder why you were discussing it.

  • 1
    Thanks! We were speaking about loans in Japanese, starting from 助っ人 (about which one of them, who knows near nothing about Japanese, asked if it's an anglicism); from there I brought 人孔 as an example of loans, and that started the discussion about it being native or borrowed.
    – Mauro
    Dec 5 '19 at 17:14
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    Hmm, is “翻訳借用” a loan translation of “loan translation”? 🧐 (Just kidding, but it is an interesting question how much languages affect each other even if something isn’t a direct loan.) Dec 5 '19 at 20:04

Native Japanese speaker here.

So as @l'électeur pointed out, 「人孔」 would in theory fall under this umbrella of a calque.

However, in this case, 「マンホール」is far, far more common. In the 18 years I've lived in Japan, I've heard the word「人孔」exactly 0 times. That's how common (or rather, uncommon) it is. In fact, you said 「そこの人孔に気をつけてください。」 to someone on the street, they probably wouldn't understand you.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up「人孔」, and the definition for the word was: 「マンホール」

So yeah, pretty useless word. If you're a foreigner learning the Japanese language, I recommend you just forget about the existence of the word entirely.


It's a thing in Mandarin world (Taiwan maybe?) to know several Japan region(Prefectures/cities) has unique emblem in its manhole cover(マンホールの蓋) design. As result, the term (人孔/人孔蓋) is a more used Kanji in Chinese instead of Japanese (人孔蓋 is a fairly common term in Mandarin news report that I remembered)

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