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The Etymological Corner: Panis, pane, pão …빵 (ppang)

By Katarzyna Koźma

Have you ever wondered why we say things the way we say them? What is the history behind various words and phrases? Welcome to our new monthly section – The Etymological Corner where we explore interesting, mysterious, and oftentimes crazy history of many words in various languages!

Panis, pane, pão …(ppang). It’s surely a coincidence!

Today, we will try to figure out what is the connection between the Korean word 빵 (ppang) meaning bread and words for the same tasty product in Romance Languages. Enjoy!

Recently, I’ve found myself being increasingly interested in Korean. After trying to resist the urge, explaining to myself that I should be focusing on the languages that I’m actively studying right now and that I’ve a long list of languages which are in a standby mode, I’ve done what any self-respecting language lover would do in this situation – I gave in. I don’t know about you but I like to start my language adventure with some food-related vocabulary. Some will say that it’s a part of essential, survival knowledge, some will say that I just really like eating. Potato, potato…. However, that is why I stumbled across the word 빵 (ppang) pretty early on. I was intrigued. How on earth this Korean word sounded similar to the Italian pane, Spanish pan, French pain, Portugal pão, Romanian pâine and finally, Latin pane? Korean, after all, is an Altaic language and all the Romance languages belong to the Indo-European family. But can it be a coincidence? Let’s check, I thought. And that’s how I went down the rabbit hole of research.

The Korean 빵 (ppang) is a loanword coming from the Japanese term パン (pan). But, wait, Japanese isn’t an Indo-European language, so presumably, it has also borrowed this word from someone. Indeed, パン (pan) can be directly traced to the Portuguese word pão. Portugal IS an Indo-European language and is descended from Latin. Case closed; we can all go home. Hold your horses, people, this is exactly the point in which the story gets interesting. How come we can find Portuguese vocabulary in Japanese? The two countries lie thousands of kilometres apart (the distance between Tokyo and Lisbon is around 11142 km in a straight line) and the two cultures do not share much of their history. Right? Wrong.

Let us step back into the beginning of the 16th century. At this time, Japan was basically off-limits to Western visitors and it opened itself to Europeans only around 1540. The first traders were from… yes, you’ve guessed it – Portugal. Together with the merchants, Portuguese ships were bringing Jesuit missionaries into the country. Both these groups had their influence on the Japanese culture of the time, including introducing new food products and names for them. This is the time when Portuguese bread, and the word pão first appeared in Japan. What’s really interesting is the fact that Jesuit missionaries are also responsible for the creation of the most important Japanese-Portuguese dictionary at the time – ‘The Nippo Jisho or Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam’ printed in 1603-04. ‘The Nippo Jisho was later used to facilitate the creation of other dictionaries, such as Japanese-Spanish dictionary (1603) or French-Japanese dictionary (1868).

The Portuguese were eventually expelled from Japan – for political reasons – in 1639 but this didn’t stop the Japanese from enjoying new, European, culinary inventions. All right, so we know how Japanese got its word for bread. But what about Korean, you ask? Korea and Japan share a long and complex history. However, in this little research we need to focus on one period in particular – the time when Korea was under Japanese Rule between 1910 and 1945. During these years, Japan had a strong influence on Korean culture and language. It was also when the Korean word 빵 (ppang) was born.

So, what about Korean bread in the 21st century? How much does it have in common with its European cousin? As we live in the age of globalisation it is certainly possible to buy Western bread in Asia. (Interestingly, two well-known Korean bakery chains have French-inspired names: Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours. They’re not run by French owners, though.) However, Koreans have created their own way of bread-making. Their breads are usually softer and fluffier than their European equivalents. You may also encounter some interesting flavour combinations which might surprise you, if you’re European. This includes (but is not limited to) cream cheese garlic bread or baked goods with red bean fillings.

It’s worth mentioning that빵 (ppang) is often used to indicate not only bread but also various other backed goods, such as for example 붕어빵 (bungeo-ppang) – a fish-shaped pastry – or 황남빵 (hwangnam bread) a pastry with red bean paste. But this is a topic for another time. Or, maybe, you can go on your own etymological adventure and start researching various names for baked good in Korean and beyond? Whatever you decide to do – have fun and see you in the next month’s instalment of The Etymological Corner!

If you want to know more…

…about the Portuguese Jesuits influences in Japan ‘Portugal, Jesuits and Japan: spiritual beliefs and earthly goods’edited by Victoria Weston. The book, originally an accompanying publication to the museum exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art in Boston (MA), is a collection of essays on the relationship between Portuguese Jesuits and Japan in the 16th and 17th century.

…about language contact between Portuguese and Japanese in the 16th century – ‘Portuguese-Japanese Language Contact in 16th century Japan’ by Akira Kono. It’s a short academic article published by the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. Even though it was written for academia, the text should be clear for language enthusiasts. If you haven’t studied linguistics at university you can still give it a go!

…about bread in modern South Korea – ‘What Will You Find in a South Korean Bakery?’ by Naomi Blenkinsop published on This is a short article about various types of baked goods that you can expect entering a South Korean bakery, including desserts and pastry. If you, like me, have a sweet-tooth take a look and find something new to try on your next trip to Seoul!

We invite you to participate in our etymological adventure! If you’d like to read about etymology of a word or a phrase that intrigues you send it to Although we can’t promise that we’ll be able to answer all the questions we can certainly promise that we can give it a go!

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