Foreign Words in English
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
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.
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 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)
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
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
dímsAm, from dím 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;
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
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.
an oriental dress with a slit skirt and a mandarin collar;
from Chinese (Guangdong) chèuhng-sAam, literally, long gown;
quickly, without delay;
from Cantonese kap meaning fast
present, gratuity; from Xiamen kam si meaning a grateful thanks
- feng shui
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: tàijíquán, from tàijí the Absolute in Chinese cosmology + quán fist, boxing;
an ancient Chinese discipline of meditative movements practiced as a system of exercises – called also tai chi, t'ai chi
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.
- 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
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 pa·n, 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;
Chinese around Guangdong sàambáan, from sàam three + báan 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",
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)
Finally, two word have arrived into English simply by being
named after a Chinese place.
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.
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;
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
Created December 9, 1998.