Gung ho — and other Chinese imports


“Some golfers hardly gung-ho about chance to win Olympic gold,” read a recent headline in the Chicago Tribune. It’s a common enough expression — gung ho — in both American and British English, meaning “unthinkingly enthusiastic and eager, especially about taking part in fighting or warfare” (OED). But it recently occurred to me that being a phrase of Chinese origin, gung ho is fairly unusual in its etymology: I can’t think of many other words or phrases that English has borrowed from that language. So I did some digging …

Gung ho dates from the second world war. From the Chinese word gōnghé, meaning ‘work together’ or ‘cooperate,’ it was adopted as a slogan by a guerrilla unit of U.S. marines operating in the Pacific in 1942, and was widely adopted into American English in the late 1950s (according to Etymonline and various other sources).

Below are 15 other words and phrases that we’ve borrowed from the Chinese — as well as two that might or might not have such Asian origins; some of them might well surprise you. Please add any we’ve missed in the comments section below. (All definitions courtesy OED and explanations from the Online Etymology Dictionary unless otherwise stated.)

Brainwash: to make (someone) adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible pressure. From 1950, a literal translation of the Chinese xi nao. A term from the Korean War.

Chop chop: quickly. Pidgin English, from the Chinese k’wa-k’wa.

Chow: food. Mandarin chǎo (炒), meaning “sauté” or “stir-fry”. From 1856, American English (originally in California), from Chinese pidgin English chow-chow (1795), reduplication of Chinese cha or tsa “mixed.” The dog breed of the same name is from 1886, of unknown origin, but some suggest a link to the Chinese tendency to see dogs as edible.

Ketchup: Yes, ketchup. Or catsup. As in what we put on our burgers and fries. “It might have come from Chinese koechiap “brine of fish,” which, if authentic, perhaps is from the Chinese community in northern Vietnam [Terrien de Lacouperie, in “Babylonian and Oriental Record,” 1889, 1890]. Catsup (earlier catchup, 1680s) is a failed attempt at Englishing, still in use in U.S., influenced by cat and sup. Originally a fish sauce made from various plant juices, the word came to be used in English for a wide variety of spiced gravies and sauces; “Apicius Redivivus; or, the Cook’s Oracle,” by William Kitchiner, London, 1817, devotes 7 pages to recipes for different types of catsup (his book has 1 spelling of ketchup, 72 of catsup), including walnut, mushroom, oyster, cockle and mussel, tomata, white (vinegar and anchovies figure in it), cucumber, and pudding catsup. … Tomato ketchup emerged c.1800 in U.S. and predominated from early 20c.”

Kowtow: Act in an excessively subservient manner. 1804, from the Chinese k’o-t’ou custom of touching the ground with the forehead while kneeling as a gesture of respect or submission, literally “knock the head,” from k’o “knock, bump” + t’ou “head.”

Lose face: Suffer a loss of respect; be humiliated.  From 1876, it is said to be from the Chinese tu lien; hence also save face (1915).

No can do: informal for “I’m unable to do it.”  Attested from 1827, a locution of English-speaking Chinese noted 19c. in China, Australia and the West Coast of the U.S.

Paper tiger: A person or thing that appears threatening but is ineffectual. From 1952, it translates the Chinese tsuh lao fu, popularized by Mao Zedong.

Pidgin:  [This one is very meta. — Glosso] A grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. 1876, from pigeon English (1859), the reduced form of the language used in China for communication with Europeans, from pigeon (1826), itself a pidgin word, representing a Chinese pronunciation of business. Meaning extended in 1891 to “any simplified language.”

Running dog: A servile follower, especially of a political system. Running dog was first recorded in 1937, from Chinese and North Korean communist phrases used to describe supposed imperialist lackeys, such as Mandarin zou gou “running dog,” on the notion of a dog that runs at its master’s command.

Scorched earth: A military strategy of burning or destroying buildings, crops, or other resources that might be of use to an invading enemy force. From 1937, a translation of the Chinese jiaotu, used against the Japanese in a bid to stem their advance into China.

Tea: As in, a cuppa. 1650s, tay, also in early spellings thea, tey, tee and at first pronounced so as to rhyme with obey; the modern pronunciation predominates from mid-18c. But earlier in English as chaa (1590s), also cha, tcha, chia, cia. The two forms of the word reflect two paths of transmission: chaa is from Portuguese cha, attested in Portuguese from 1550s, via Macao, from Mandarin (Chinese) ch’a. The later form, which became Modern English tea, is via Dutch, from Malay teh and directly from Chinese (Amoy dialect) t’e, which corresponds to Mandarin ch’a.

Tycoon: A wealthy, powerful person in business or industry. From 1857, it was a title given by foreigners to the shogun of Japan (said to have been used by his supporters when addressing foreigners, as an attempt to convey that the shogun was more important than the emperor), from the Japanese taikun “great lord or prince,” from Chinese tai “great” + kiun “lord.” Transferred meaning “important person” is attested from 1861, in reference to U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (in the diary of his secretary, John Hay); specific application to “wealthy and powerful businessman” is post-World War I.

Typhoon: A tropical storm in the region of the Indian or western Pacific oceans. From the Mandarin dàfēng (大风), meaning  “great wind”.

Yen: A longing or yearning. From 1906, earlier yen-yen (1900), yin (1876) “intense craving for opium,” from Chinese (Cantonese) yan “craving,” or from a Beijing dialect word for “smoke.” Reinforced in English by influence of yearn.

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And here are a couple of possible Chinese imports, whose true origins continue to be discussed and disputed:

Long time no see: see StackExchange‘s colorful discussion about the origin of the expression. It does seem to be a literal translation of 好久不见, “ho noi mou gin” (Cantonese). The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary claims that “this jocular imitation of broken English originated in the pidgin English used in Chinese and Western exchange. [Late 1800s].”

Satin: mid-14c., from Old French satin (14c.), perhaps from Arabic (atlas) zaytuni, literally “(satin) from Zaitun,” a Chinese city, perhaps modern Quanzhou in Fukien province, southern China, a major port in the Middle Ages, with a resident community of European traders. The form of the word perhaps influenced in French by Latin seta “silk.” OED finds the Arabic connection etymologically untenable and takes the French word straight from Latin. As an adjective from mid-15c.

See Glossophilia’s earlier post on words and phrases originating in Africa.


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