Anzia Mayer

The Surprising Chinese Origin of Some Common English Words

(Adam Mulligan/Flickr)

China is halfway around the world, but its words are closer at hand. “Ketchup,” for example, has found its way into the very definition of American dining, but Stanford University linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky convincingly locates its origins as a tomato-less Asian fish sauce from Vietnam or Cambodia brought into China by sea traders hailing from the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong in the 17th and 18th centuries. These traders also facilitated the spread of this fermented anchovy sauce across Southeast Asia, where the British presumably encountered it and its Chinese name, variously pronounced kôe-chiap and kê-chiap in the Southern Min dialects spoken by the sea traders.  Besides ketchup, there are a number of other English words with unexpected Chinese etymologies.

“Gung ho”

Pronounced gōng hé (工合) in Mandarin, the phrase “gung ho” is derived from characters that literally mean “work together,” but is an abbreviation of gōngyè hézuòshè (工业合作社), the Chinese term for a cooperative. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “gung ho” was adopted into English as a 1942 World War II slogan coined by Pacific-based United States Marine Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, who talked about having “kung-hou” meetings with his unit. “Gung ho” became a popular phrase in American English by the 1950s, and is defined by Oxford Dictionaries Online as “unthinkingly enthusiastic and eager, especially about taking part in fighting or warfare.”

“Long time no see”

Even though Oxford Dictionaries Online asserts that this colloquial American phrase emerged as a “humorous imitation” of incorrect English spoken by Native Americans, this phrase is probably a literal translation of its Chinese equivalent, hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn (好久不见). “Long time no see” is one of numerous English calques derived from Chinese.


The redundancy of this word neatly correlates to the Chinese kànjiàn (看见). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this is because the phrase is another calque that comes from Chinese Pidgin English. 


Typhoon is often thought to derive from the Chinese word for “great wind” (大风), pronounced dàfēng in Mandarin and tai fung in Cantonese. Linguist Jian Yang includes this word in his 2009 article on “Chinese Borrowings in English”, published in Volume 28, Issue 1 of the journal World Englishes. According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, the Chinese term “reinforced” the English equivalent, but there is another and possibly stronger connection with a Portuguese term, originally appropriated from Arabic. The Online Etymology Dictionary points out that this Arabic term, or the English usage of it, might have its roots in the Greek “Typhon,” the god personification of the word typhos, meaning “whirlwind.”


Kumquats, which look like miniature oval oranges, also get their name from Chinese. The word originated in the late 1600s, and its pronunciation derives from the Cantonese kam kwat, literally meaning, “golden orange.”


British sailors in the 1690s were the ones responsible for inducting this hybrid Chinese loanword into English. James McElvenny argues that the word “chop” was borrowed from the pre-existing Chinese Pidgin English phrase “chop-chop,” which comes from the Cantonese kap kap, meaning “fast” or “hurry.” This would make sense because in Chinese, the word for chopsticks sounds identical to the word for “fast.” As it turns out, the previous term had been homophonous with “stop,” so it was intentionally changed to have this luckier and (usually) more accurate phonological association.


Students of Chinese language will already know that China sounds nothing like the name for the country in Chinese, zhōng guó (中国), meaning “Middle Kingdom.” China probably gets its anglicized name from the word for the country used during the Qin Dynasty, a short period in the 200s B.C.E. when China strengthened its central government and standardized the national currency, weights and measures, and writing system.

This spell-check proof list of words is a testament to a long history of interaction between Chinese and English speakers. Next time you reach for the ketchup, be thankful we added tomatoes — and remember that Chinese is not quite as foreign as it seems.

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Anzia Mayer

Anzia teaches Mandarin at the Millbrook School. She majored in Asian Languages and Civilizations at Amherst College. She has studied abroad in Beijing and Kyoto. Her interests include practicing Chinese calligraphy, sailing, and writing poems.
  • Mias Mysteron

    So of these “words”, the origins of at least three are highly disputed. Only one, kumquat is undisputed.

    By the way, the Mandarin for ‘typhoon’ is 台风 tái fēng. 大风dà fēng is a ‘gale’.

    There are many words which are more definitely derived from Chinese.

    Try again.

    • Pat

      She’s a senior in college. Does it really make you feel better to talk down to her? Get a life.

      • Mias Mysteron

        So correcting a school kid’s errors is talking down?

        I’d say a remark like “Get a life” is much more patronising.

        • Anzia Mayer

          As far as I can tell, the Chinese word 台风 (tai feng) did not emerge until the late 1600s, but the English word “typhoon” was already in use by the late 1500s (http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/typhoon?q=typhoon). This is why I believe that if “typhoon” bears any relation to Chinese, it is because of 大风 (da feng) and not 台风 (tai feng).

          • Antony Wu

            So just want to add two cents here
            When I grew up in Taiwan, we used the phrase Tai Feng, because it was strong wind blowing against the island. Tai in “Tai Feng” really was referring to the island of Taiwan. Anyway, I don’t know what people say from Mainland China.

            By the way, I am amused that you two are debating over this. Maybe that’s what language majors do for fun :)

          • http://www.facebook.com/ron.zajac.3 Ron Zajac

            That’s weird. I live in Taiwan, and always assumed English got it from Chinese… for the simple reason that… If “typhoon” *didn’t* come from Chinese, it’s a mind-blowing coincidence. BTW, “tai-feng” is much closer (to my ear) to typhoon than “da-feng”.

            But, indeed, it may be a mind-blowing coincidence!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AM3NG3ESI65ADUM3APNSGXG67Y Amarike

    Ketchup comes from the (a coastal Chinese dialect) Fujianese pronunciation of 茄汁 (Kyo-chap) which literally means tomato juice. I am not sure if the term chopsticks has a Chinese origin though. Cheers.

    • Antony Wu

      I didn’t know about this either when I grew up, but it sort of makes sense.

      The the first sound of 筷子(Kuai) does indeed sound similar to “fast” or “quick”. If you decipher the character, you can think of the meaning as literally object quickly-made-by-bamboo

      I am definitely no language major on this, but I grew up accustomed to the words. I just never questioned its origin until now.

  • pqrs987

    with the name of ur blog being ‘Tea Leaf’, its surprising that u 4got the word ‘tea’!


  • Lina

    Languages borrowing words? None of this is surprising.

    Further, standard pinyin is to include a single word as one word, not separated into the morphemes. i.e. gōnghé, not gōng hé; zhōngguó, not zhōng guó.

  • Will

    I really like “kowtow”, and the concept of “losing one’s face”. Ketchup is a very interesting one, although I know there’s been much discussion that it’s more of a coincidence. Awesome article.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ron.zajac.3 Ron Zajac

      Yeah! Lose face: 掉臉

  • HenryR

    Kow Tow: kneel down to show respect. From Mandarin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cranewang1984 Crane Tonghe Wang

    The “chop” in chopstick may well come from “箸”(zhù). While chopsticks are called “筷子”(kuài zī) generally, it is known as “箸” in large areas in Southern China. (Of course I’m only guessing.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ron.zajac.3 Ron Zajac

    Ah! “Tofu”. I know it’s not quite in the same ballpark as the things you’re doing here, but it *is* a case where, besides our own coinages (e.g., “bean curd”), we also accepted and romanized the word from the Chinese, for common usage.

  • Luke

    Another one is “Chow mein” noodles is related to 炒面 “chao mian”

    • Powerlurker

      Chao mian is the Mandarin reading. Chow mein is closer to the Taishanese reading which is how it came to English (the first large wave of Chinese immigration to the US came from Taishan).

  • http://www.facebook.com/greatercause Prent Lu Small

    I thought the word typhoon came from the Japanese word “taifu” just like Tsunami came from the Japanese word which is also pronounced similarly.