Decades ago, an in-law of mine bought a box of Lucky Wood* silver spoons which included a handsome, helpful, and hand-bound pamphlet:

Look at that stylized cutlery trio! Even as the trees that whisper round a temple become soon dear as the temple's self, so does the spoon—or rather, the knife; I love the way they've solved that "one of these things is not like the other" problem.

But here's what interested me most:

Nafukin. Not napukin: nafukin. This is not an aberration; it can be found in, for example, MIYAZAWA Kenji 宮沢賢治's "Chūmon no ōi ryōriten" (注文の多い料理店, "The restaurant of many orders")



"Hurry up! The boss has already put on his nafkin, picked up his knife, and started licking his chops; he can't wait to see you."

The two gentlemen cried and cried and cried and cried and cried.

Both variants remain in use in modern Japanese, too. This dude claims that nafukin is mostly a primary/secondary school thing, and possibly an attempt to separate the napkin-for-blood/napkin-for-food concepts, in order to shield delicate children from the harsh realities of biology. This may be so, but googling reveals that this semantic differentiation is only maintained sporadically (mostly on blog posts about this very topic) out in the real world.

It isn't usual for /p/ to become /f/ in Japanese loanwords from English, so what caused it here? Rogue strain of Grimm's Law, perhaps introduced by an escaped Prussian circus monkey in the Meiji period? Prehistoric Japanese sound shifts revived and enraged by atomic testing?

No: Word on the streets is that it was interference from the Sino-Japanese word fukin 布巾, conveniently meaning "scrap of cloth."

(Fun fact: As the guy linked above points out, ナ布巾 can be visually rearranged into ナナ巾巾.)

(What do you mean that wasn't fun?)

* I guess I should make a joke about this, but the bar was really raised for me this morning by these fireworks. (Back)

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Amusing and informative post. Thanks!


Or....maybe ナフキン is just closer to the real sound than ナプキン.
The "p" in napkin in my dialect of English is at best, barely plosive, and often not plosive at all. Possibly some people with good ears thought a gentle unvoiced ふ sound is therefore more accurate than a violent プ that would send spit sailing across the table, negating the sophisticated image one wants to project in asking for a napkin.

Leonardo Boiko:

Heh, I had the tea ceremony word «fukusa» (sort of a kind of napkin) lurking in the back of my mind from the first mention of «nafukin».


Denske: Interesting theory (I like the link to manners), but there are too many other loanwords that did retain the /p/ for me to buy it. /epuroN/, /kyaputeN/, /paNpukiN/, /raiputihi/...

Leo: Thanks, my word for the day!


I’ve just done some idle Googling too, and found (among other examples) a blogger from Brunei using “nafkin” for “napkin” in English (http://sryn.blogspot.com/2008/12/my-1st-photosynth-nafkin.html), an advertisement from Israel doing the same (http://israel-business.dundb.co.il/CompanyPageNoPrint.aspx?Duns=532557865), several cases where the “f” is pretty certainly a typo, and a few people using “Nafkin” as their nom d’internet, though in those cases it may be a family name. (As for the link under the horribly memorable heading “I lost my penis in a defective stargate,” it is, sadly or perhaps happily, dead.)
After taking way too much time to think about all this, I’m still left wondering if it’s a matter of typos in Japanese too, and/or if, as the Brunei and Israeli examples hint, there may once have been a dialect form “nafkin,” out there on the edges of the English language/British empire, which somehow reached Japan, either before the Prussian circus came to town or soon after.
And now I shall take a naf - I’m sorry, I mean ...

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