Spicks & Specks

Stress Test

11 July 2011

The term 'stress test' first became familiar to the newspaper-reading public from the European banking crisis. However, the concept of ‘stress tests’ as applied to banks is a carryover from the world of physical testing.

‘Stress testing’ is defined in English Wikipedia as:

a form of testing that is used to determine the stability of a given system or entity. It involves testing beyond normal operational capacity, often to a breaking point, in order to observe the results.

The Japanese public became familiar with the original meaning in abrupt fashion when the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, suddenly announced in July 2011 that nuclear reactors would be subjected to stress tests before resuming operations.


The term used in the press for ‘stress test’ is in katakana: ストレステスト sutoresu tesuto. The Japanese are again indulging in their favourite pastime of borrowing English words.

In a service to older readers and others not so familiar with English, newspapers often give a kanji equivalent to katakana Japanese. In referring to the banking stress tests, Japanese press reports used the term 健全性審査 kenzen-sei shinsa, or ‘soundness inspection/examination/screening’. This ‘gloss’ is designed to express the actual function of the tests as they apply to the banking system.

With regard to the stress testing of the nuclear reactors, however, a different gloss is given. ストレステスト sutoresu tesuto is generally rendered as 耐性試験 taisei shiken, meaning something like ‘resistance test’ or ‘test of ability to withstand’. It is interesting that a different translation — a more narrowly physically based translation — has been chosen here.

Both ストレス sutoresu and テスト tesuto are familiar words to ordinary Japanese, but they are not used in the same technical sense as in ‘stress test’. ストレス sutoresu is normally the emotional tension that builds up when you are under pressure, which is the same as the colloquial meaning of ‘stress’ in English.  テスト tesuto is a small quizz or exam, which is also the same as the meaning of ‘test’ in English. Using technical vocabulary borrowed from English containing emotive terms like ストレス sutoresu doesn’t seem calculated to lessen apprehension among the populace.


Unlike Japanese, Chinese uses a direct translation (or calque) of the English original for the concept of 'stress test': 压力测试 / 壓力測試 yālì cèshì, meaning ‘pressure test’. This term is used for both banking and nuclear reactor stress tests.

压力 / 壓力 yālì refers to ‘pressure’, which is close in meaning to ‘stress’. (In Japanese it is also a familiar word, 圧力 atsuryoku, and while it certainly can be used to refer to stress, it is also commonly used to express the idea of putting ‘pressure’ on other people to do things.)

The meaning of the word 测试 / 測試 cèshì is clear from its components: it refers to a ‘measuring’ and ‘testing’ process. It is technical enough in nature that many dictionaries, particularly older dictionaries, don’t carry it, the Baidu dictionary being one of them. Dictionaries that do carry it define it as follows:

  1. 考查人的知识、技能。专业测试。 (考查人的知識、技能。專業測試。) Kǎochá rén de zhīshi, jìnéng. Zhuānyè cèshì. ‘Test people’s knowledge or skills. Specialist test’.
  2. 对机械、仪器和电器等的性能和精度进行测量。 (對機械、儀器和電器等的性能和精度進行測量。) Duì jīxiè, yìqì hé diànqì děng de xìngnéng hé jīngdù jìnxíng cèliáng. ‘Conduct measurement of the performance and precision of machinery, instruments, and electrical machinery’.

The intended meaning is the second. The use of the term for banks is an extension of the original physical testing meaning, a usage based on English.


Just for reference, Vietnamese press reports use terms like sát hạch ‘examination’ for banking stress tests. Others use the English ‘stress test’.

For stress tests on nuclear reactors the term kiểm tra tình trạng căng thẳng is found. The first two words would be 检查情状 / 檢查情狀 (‘test + situation’) if Vietnamese were still using Chinese characters. The third, căng thẳng, is a Vietnamese word meaning ‘stress, tension’. Reading from right to left following natural Vietnamese order, the meaning is ‘stress situation test’.

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