Tsundoku—piling up unread books

What is a loanword?

English is a great pirate language. If it doesn’t have words for something it just raids other languages for them. Called loanwords, English has borrowed thousands of them from nearly all the main languages. English has taken café from French, pyjamas from Hindi, assassin from Arabic, and the list goes on. In Australia we have borrowed many words from Aboriginal languages. There are, for instance, kangaroo, boomerang, barramundi, and mulga.

There is an important word that I want to adopt into English—we have nothing like it at all.

What is Tsundoku?

Tsundoku is a Japanese word that has been around for about a hundred years. It means to have so many unread books that they start to pile up.

I am very much guilty of buying books before I have read the last one (or even the book before that). On my bedside I have a pile of books. I have piles of books on the floor in my office. There are bookcases all over the house. I have run out of shelf space so I stack them in front of the books already there. I can’t resist buying books that I like. My wife is a reader but she is not a hoarder. I have to restrain her from giving away my books that she thinks I haven’t read (which is, by the way, not the reason to own a book).

The Japanese created tsundoku (積ん読) as a pun (every culture loves to play with words). Tsundoku is a form of the verb tsunde oku (積んでおく), which means to pile up and leave it for a while. The doku part was substituted with the kanji character 読, meaning to read, to create a new word that means to buy reading materials and pile them up somewhere for a while.

If I can encourage this word into English I won’t have to justify myself anymore. I can just say its tsundoku; and perhaps then, I won’t have to stand guard over my books every time there is a school fete.