Bic in Japan

I always assumed that the company name Bikku Kamera meant "big camera", and was just an example of "bad man/Batman" double consonant devoicing. But a co-worker noted yesterday that according to Wikipedia, I was wrong:

On a trip to Bali, company founder Arai heard local children using the phrase bic, bic, and, told that it meant idai (great, grand), used it as the company's name.

On the other hand, it seems that this Balinese bic itself derives from English "big". This would mean that my "devoiced /g/" theory was accurate as far as it went, but the assumption that this took place within Japanese was mistaken.

Lesson: Loanwords in Japanese are a psychedelic fever swamp.

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Ben Zimmer:

I've taken a stab at this cross-linguistic conundrum here.


Nice! As you probably deduced, I know nothing at all about any languages spoken in Bali, so I'm glad to get informed comment from someone who does.

Now to alert Japanese Wikipedia.

Ben Zimmer:

Any phonological insight on how Indonesian /bai?/ could have ended up as Japanese /bik/?


Not really... I find it pretty mysterious, especially Bic Camera's preferred spelling with a <c>. I guess since there's no glottal stop consonant in Japanese, I can see how that might get converted to something else, and /k/ is a pretty likely candidate.

Maybe it was filtered through someone writing it down. If they used non-standard spelling, that could explain everything: a <c> instead of a <k>, and <i> pronounced like the one in <bike>.


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/bai?/ to /bik/ does not seem feasible to me. I think Matt's original theory is more likely. Not only that, but I can't imagine a group of kids describing a camera as 'baik-baik'. It just doesn't sound right.

Ben Zimmer:

Who said the Balinese kids were describing a camera as baik-baik? All we know from Wikipedia is that Arai heard the kids saying something like bic, bic and learned that bic means "great, grand". He then decided to use it for the company name. A mishearing of baik, baik still seems like the most likely candidate for the origin.

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