We love talking about loan words in English. The history of where English gets many of its words is just so fascinating (very interesting)! We get so many words from other languages, but one often overlooked (not seen, not thought about, forgotten about) group are Chinese loan words. Chinese loan words in English are particularly interesting because many of them are literal (direct) translations from Chinese. Some of these Chinese loan words (or phrases, in some cases) are words or phrases we use every day and may never have imagined that they come from another language.
If you’re curious (want to know more) about Chinese loan words in English, keep reading to learn about the origins of some common words and phrases.
A literal translation of 洗腦, brainwashing.
Brainwashing is the idea that people can be convinced (persuaded, talked into) of a social, political, or religious belief system or idea. Brainwashing can be used in many different scenarios (situations). Brainwashing has been used in wars and by criminals, for example. It’s never a good thing to be brainwashed, so it’s a good idea to know what it is!
- In the book A Clockwork Orange, the main character is famously brainwashed.
- Brainwashing is a typical technique used by governments in science fiction stories.
From 速速, hurry, urgent.
Have you ever been moving slowly, and someone said “chop chop” to you? This means that they want you to hurry up and move faster, and is a loan word from Chinese. The phrase is a literal translation from a Chinese phrase meaning the same thing. The next time you need someone to move faster or to hurry up, you can tell them to chop chop, and know exactly where the phrase originates (comes from)!
- Chop chop, kids! We’re running late and need to leave!
- My boss told me to “chop chop” on my report and to have it ready by the end of the day.
From 茄汁, the brine of pickled fish.
What do you like to eat on your hamburgers? Do you like cheese, lettuce, onions, and ketchup? Ketchup, a sauce made from tomatoes and vinegar, may be your favorite, but did you know that it got its start in China?
Ketchup is one of the more surprising Chinese loan words. Ketchup started out in China as a type of fish sauce, where it then moved to Malaysia and Singapore before it was discovered by English explorers. From there, ketchup became the condiment we know and love today.
- Could I get some ketchup with my French fries, please?
- My boyfriend loves ketchup, but I don’t like it as much.
Long time, no see.
A literal translation of a common greeting, 好久不見.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “long time, no see“? It’s a phrase that people use when they haven’t seen each other for a long time. But did you know that this is another direct translation from Chinese? Long time, no see is a common greeting in Mandarin that we now use in English, as well!
- Long time, no see! I haven’t seen you in months!
- Long time, no see! When was the last time we saw each other? High school?
A literal translation of 纸老虎.
A paper tiger is someone who claims (says) to be powerful or threatening, but is actually weak. This is another literal translation that we get from Chinese. Mao Zedong, the former leader of the People’s Republic of China, used to use the phrase paper tiger to describe his opponents and enemies, and from there it became a common phrase to use in English, as well.
- The new law is a paper tiger: it looks like it will cause a lot of change, but it doesn’t have the power to do much at all.
- Her new boss is a paper tiger. He’s threatened to fire a lot of people, but doesn’t actually have the power to do that.
From 茶, tea.
Do you prefer (like) to drink coffee or tea? Personally, I drink coffee in the morning, but tea in the afternoon. It should come as no surprise that we get the word tea from Chinese, since tea originally comes from the country. We still get many different kinds of tea from China, as well! What is your favorite kind of tea?
- He likes to drink a lot of tea when he has a cold to help him get better.
- I like to drink black tea in the morning, and green tea in the afternoon.
Do you know of any other Chinese loan words? What Chinese loan word is your favorite? Share with us in the comments below!
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and loves a good “cuppa” in the evening.