English Words with Chinese Origins (Chinese New Year)

Chinese New Year

As today is Chinese New Year 2019 (the Year of the Pig, no less), we thought we’d look at how Chinese has influenced English. Some of the words we’ve picked up from Chinese are obvious because we still associate them with Chinese culture or food, such as ‘kung fu’ or ‘wok’. In this case, though, we’re going to look at a few words you might not know have Chinese origins…

Happy Year of the Pig
Happy Year of the Pig!
(Image: Karen Arnold/Public Domain Pictures)

1. For All the ‘Tea’ in China

Okay, this one might be obvious to some given that tea comes from China. But we often think of it as a very British drink, so it is interesting to think about where the word ‘tea’ comes from.

The answer to this, ultimately, is the Chinese character 茶, which is pronounced differently in different parts of China. It is, however, pronounced te in Min Chinese, in particular in the in the coastal province of Fujian. We therefore suspect that te spread via sea traders to other coastal areas, eventually leading to the English word ‘tea’ (as well as in Spanish and tee in Afrikaans, among others).

Tea leaves
Tea leaves, prior to bagging.
(Photo: Wilerson S Andrade/flickr)

Another Chinese word for ‘tea’ is pronounced cha. This word spread to other parts of the world, becoming chay in Urdu, shay in Arabic, and even the English dialect word ‘char’. So no matter where you travel, if you order a cup of tea in the local language, you will be drawing on a Chinese term!

2. Ketchup and Catsup

If we think about tomato ketchup these days, most of us probably assume it has origins in America. But the words ‘ketchup’ and ‘catsup’ come from the Hokkien Chinese term kê-tsiap (鮭汁).

So is ketchup Chinese, then? Not quite. Kê-tsiap is a sauce made from fermented fish. It was only when English and American people got their hands on the recipe that it eventually transformed into the sweet tomato sauce we now use on chips. Nevertheless, while the recipe has changed, we’ve kept using ‘ketchup’ and ‘catsup’ to refer to this sauce in English.

3. Chops and Chows

The words ‘chop’ and ‘chow’ appear in quite a few English words with Chinese origins. For example, the phrase ‘chop chop’ (meaning ‘hurry’) is a pidgin English version of the Cantonese term chok chok. And this may also be where the ‘chop’ in ‘chopsticks’ comes from.

One theory behind the English word ‘chow’ (meaning ‘food’), meanwhile, is that it comes from the Chinese word ch’ao, which literally means ‘to stir fry’. This is why we see it in ‘chow mein’, a Chinese dish of stir-fried noodles.

Chow down on some chow mein.
Chow down on some chow mein.
(Photo: brando/flickr)

4. Chinese Pidgin English

We mentioned Chinese pidgin English above in passing. This is a version of English spoken in areas where Chinese is the main language or where Chinese has a big influence. But it is also the origin of certain phrases now commonly used in English. As well as ‘chop chop’, for example, the phrases ‘no can do’, ‘long time no see’ and ‘look-see’ were all influenced by Chinese.

And while these phrases are now widely accepted in English, they may have begun as mocking imitations of Chinese pidgin English. Some people therefore consider their origins offensive.

5. Typhoons and Tycoons

‘Typhoon’ (a strong wind) and ‘tycoon’ (a wealthy business person) look similar in English despite their different meanings. In addition, both words have a Chinese influence in their pasts.

‘Typhoon’, for example, comes directly from the Chinese Cantonese tai fung, which literally means ‘big wind’. In English, this got combined with Typhon, an ancient Greek monster known as the ‘father of winds’.

Typhon is the one with the tentacles.
Typhon is the one with the tentacles.

‘Tycoon’, meanwhile, comes from the Japanese word taikun, meaning ‘great lord or prince’. But the Japanese word is a combination of the Chinese words tai (great) and kiun (lord). Here, then, we see that the ‘ty-’ in ‘typhoon’ and ‘tycoon’ comes from the Chinese word tai in both cases. Great!

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