Top English Phrases Borrowed from Chinese

Although a debate currently rages amongst Chinese academics, linguists and lexicographers over English’s place within the Chinese dictionary, English speakers all over the world continue to use bits and pieces of the Chinese language on a daily basis, through various phrases and loanwords previously “borrowed” from Chinese. Here are the top 10 Chinese phrases that made it over the Great Wall and into the vocabularies of English speakers everywher, with a few that might just surprise you.

10. “Gung ho”

In some ways, the fact that this English phrase meaning “extremely enthusiastic and eager” has its origins in the Chinese language isn’t exactly a huge surprise – it certainly sounds Chinese, due to it remaining largely unchanged from the Mandarin phrase gōng hé (工合), which means “work together.” The actual history of the phrase is perhaps a bit more interesting; as an abbreviation for the small industrial cooperatives that emerged in rural China during the 1930s, it was noticed by a US Marine Corps Lieutenant named Evans Carlson, who admired the work ethic of these organizations and decided to take it back to the States as an unofficial motto for the Marines. Though its origins remain deeply rooted in Chinese history, it’s now often used in situations that aren’t related to China in the least – a testament to the phrase’s punchy appeal.

9. “Chop chop”

“Chop chop,” a not-so-polite way to ask someone to “hurry up,” has its origins in the Cantonese word gāp (急), which also means “quickly.” Evidently, the technique of repetition for effect (“go, go, go!”) is truly universal, and if the drivers in China are any indication, so too is the need for speed.

8. “Chow”

One of the pillars of Chinese culture may very well be its delicious cuisine, so it should come as no surprise to find its imprint on our food-related vocabulary in addition to our dinner plates – the English word “chow,” slang for “to eat” or “food,” comes almost directly from the Mandarin chǎo (炒), which means “to sauté” or “to stir-fry.”

7. “Typhoon”

While we may not have “typhoons” per se in the United States (we call similar storms “hurricanes”), the word “typhoon” still spun its way into the English language, mostly unaltered from its Mandarin root dàfēng (大风), meaning literally “great wind.”

6. “Paper Tiger”

Here’s one for history buffs. You probably know that “paper tiger” means “a person or thing that has the appearance of strength or power but is actually weak.” What you might not know, however, is that it comes from the Chinese phrase zhǐlǎohǔ (纸老虎), which has the same meaning and was first documented in English by Sir John Francis Davis in 1836. It was Mao Zedong, though, who made it famous – he routinely used the phrase to criticize the United States during the 1950s and ’60s.

5. “Lose face”

Initially, this one may come as a bit of a shock, until you consider that putting together the words “lose” and “face” doesn’t really make a whole lot of literal sense within the normal conventions of the English language. Sure enough, this phrase meaning “to be humiliated” comes from the somewhat haphazard separation of the Mandarin phrase for humiliation, diūliǎn (丢脸), into its constituent parts: Diū meaning “to lose” and liǎn meaning – you guessed it – “face.”

4. “Long Time No See”

While the exact origins of this phrase remain unclear (it may have come from Pidgin English spoken by Native Americans), this affectionate greeting is widely thought to have derived – perhaps even in tandem with the Native American phrase – from the Mandarin phrase hǎojiǔ bùjiàn (好久不见), which literally means “very long no see.”

3. “Brainwashing”

A product of American interaction with Chinese during the Korean War, this English term meaning “the systematic change of attitudes and beliefs” comes from the Mandarin xǐnǎo (洗腦), which means more or less the same thing. One of the more commonly used phrases on the list, this one just goes to show how language can be borrowed and shared in ways you wouldn’t expect – conflict being one of them.

2. “Tea”

We all know that the tea trade itself originated in Asia. What you might be surprised to know, however, is that the English word for “tea” followed a similar route, coming into English from the Xiamen-dialect Chinese word t’e, which is equivalent to the Mandarin chá (茶). Drink up!

1. “Ketchup”

This one blew my mind. Even though there may be nothing more quintessentially American than ketchup and mustard on a hot dog, the actual word for the ever-popular tomato condiment may originate from the Cantonese kèhjāp (茄汁) or fānkèhjāp (番茄汁), which roughly means “tomato sauce.” So, the next time you chow (see #8) down on a footlong while watching America’s favorite pastime, keep in mind that you may be experiencing a little Chinese linguistic history at the same time!

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