Merriam-Webster, in keeping tabs on our ever-evolving language, regularly add words to their dictionary to reflect notable societal and cultural shifts. Last month, “dox” and “hella” were added to stand amongst 2,000 carefully considered entries, and now they’re looking towards representing the otaku community with the word “senpai”. It isn’t yet a certainty that it will be approved for addition, but they’ve certainly noticed its growing use, as they explain on their website:
Has senpai noticed you? Are you sure? WOW. We are SO happy for you.
If you understand what we’re talking about you might be an anime and/or manga fan. Or spend a lot of time on Tumblr. Or be a millennial. Or whatever comes after the millennials (which is probably Generation Z, but the jury is still out on that designation).
In informal use, ‘senpai’ can refer to anyone whose attention you want to get—that could be someone you admire and want to be friends with or someone you’re interested in romantically.
Senpai made its first appearance in Urban Dictionary back in 2004, when a user defined it as “an upperclassman.” Other entries (a number of which mention anime and manga) have since been added; it’s defined there variously as “someone older than you,” “someone you look up to,” “mentor,” “senior,” an “older person who you adore.” There are more.
The top definition (as chosen by users) is “someone who will never notice you.”