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.
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.