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English Words from Chinese
September 5, 2005


Where do the words in our English language come from? Did you ever imagine that quite a few English words come from Chinese?

Being originally Anglo-Saxon, of course English received many words from its Germanic ancestor. But as a result of Norman French invaders, a large number of Romance words have also come in, derived mostly from Latin (and somewhat from Greek) so that today about 55% of the words stem from that source although the remaining 45% of the mostly Germanic words are the ones most used in everyday speech.

Aware of all of the above, I was visiting Ellis Island in 1993 where I encountered a display about all of the things immigrants have brought to America. I had never given it much thought before so I was forcibly struck by an exhibit asserting that more than just a few words have come from a place as linguistically exotic as China (and this on a trip where I had heard both Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon). I resolved to look into this further up on returning home, the results of my investigations being what you see below.

Copyright 2003 Richard Heli

Perhaps the easiest way for words from another language to enter English is through our stomachs. Examples like pizza, spaghetti and burrito will all readily spring to mind, and perhaps alert our salivary glands. And when it comes to food words, Chinese is no exception:
from ke tziap; a condiment previously used in the Roman Empire, but known there as garum and perhaps borrowed from Ancient Greeks
slender stick eating utensil; only the first part of the word is Chinese, from Cantonese kap meaning fast; see also chop-chop
chop suey
dish prepared from bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, onions, mushrooms, meat or fish, rice and soy sauce; from Cantonese shap (miscellaneous) sui (bit)
food, victuals; perhaps from Chinese spoken around Peking: chiao meaning meat dumpling; spinoff words such as chowhound, chow line, chowtime, etc.
chow mein
stew of shredded meat, mushrooms and vegetables served with fried noodles; from Peking Chinese ch'ao3 mien4
dim sum
Date: 1948; traditional Chinese food consisting of a variety of items (as steamed or fried dumplings, pieces of cooked chicken, and rice balls) served in small portions. from Chinese around Guangdong dmsAm, from dm dot, speck + sAm heart
any of several small yellow to orange citrus fruits with sweet spongy rind and somewhat acid pulp that are used chiefly for preserves; also : a tree or shrub (genus Fortunella) of the rue family that bears kumquats. from Chinese around Guangdong gAm-gwAt, from gAm gold + gwAt citrus fruit; Date: 1699
sauce made from subjecting beans to long fermentation and digestion in brine; also contributed to soybean, soya-bean, soybean oil; from Cantonese shî yau meaning soybean oil
Another good source of foreign words which English speakers have not been able to avoid taking into their language are those which describe customs so strange to them that they simply have no local word yet to call them. Distant, exotic China has certainly supplied its share of these.
an oriental dress with a slit skirt and a mandarin collar; from Chinese (Guangdong) chuhng-sAam, literally, long gown; Date: 1952
quickly, without delay; from Cantonese kap meaning fast
present, gratuity; from Xiamen kam si meaning a grateful thanks
feng shui
Chinese geomancy
to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in homage or to show obvious deference; from Peking Chinese k'o1 t'ou2
tai chi chuan
from Chinese spoken around Beijing: tijqun, from tij the Absolute in Chinese cosmology + qun fist, boxing; Date: 1954; an ancient Chinese discipline of meditative movements practiced as a system of exercises – called also tai chi, t'ai chi
Besides food, English speakers have interacted with Chinese in other ways, sometimes encountering things so unique that they don't know what to call them. It could be an occupation, a dog breed or a weather phenomenon, but the result is the same, borrow the word the locals use. By the way, the English word "hurricane" is borrowed also, from the Caribbean.
chow chow
heavy-coated dog with a broad head and muzzle, full ruff of hair and a blue-black tongue; akin to Cantonese kaú which means dog
sailor; Date: 1915; from a Chinese word for sailor?
leader of a squad which arrived in English during World War II via Japanese, but originally came from han, squad (from Middle Chinese pan, arrangement, class) + cho, chief (from Middle Chinese tra).
mah jongg
a game of Chinese origin usually played by four persons with 144 tiles that are drawn and discarded until one player secures a winning hand; from Mah-Jongg, a trademark; 1920. Variants include mahjong and mah-jongg.
a flat-bottomed Chinese skiff usually propelled by two short oars; from Chinese around Guangdong samban, from sam three + ban board, plank; 1620
This word is traditionally thought to come from Greek sErik-ós meaning silken Since -ikos was a common Greek ending meaning "belonging to", Victor Mair has proposed that the Ancient Greeks got the word from a reconstructed Ancient Chinese word *syeg- meaning shimmering cloth.
tai pan
a leading business entrepreneur, particularly in Hong Kong (Cantonese)
a great windstorm, hurricane, from taiî (great) fung (wind)
Rather special are cases of words which refer back to language itself. The first did not come from Chinese, but was transformed by it while the second describes the transliteration method.
a simplified speech used for communication between people with different languages from "pidgin English", pidgin being the word in pidgin English for "business", i.e. a changed form of the English word "business". Pidgin English is/was a form of Chinese English used for business purposes in the Orient.
A system for romanizing Chinese ideograms in which tones are indicated by diacritics and unaspirated consonants are transcribed as voiced. (Another such system is called WADE-GILES.) From Chinese (Beijing) pInyIn to spell phonetically, from pIn to arrange + yIn sound, pronunciation. date: 1963
Finally, two word have arrived into English simply by being named after a Chinese place.
a fine usually white clay that is used in ceramics and refractories, as a filler or extender, and in medicine especially as an adsorbent in the treatment of diarrhea. from French kaolin, from Gaoling hill in China; circa 1741
to forcibly abduct someone into service, from the practice of sea captains in San Francisco who got sailors drunk in order to impress them aboard their ships bound for Shanghai, China

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    Created December 9, 1998.