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Glamorous Grammar: English Words of Chinese Origin

Yesterday, across China, people marked the final day of their New Year celebrations, and the first full moon of the Chinese year, with the Lantern Festival – a 2000 year old celebration of light. This spectacular ceremony, in which thousands of lanterns are let off into the sky, symbolises good luck, the coming of spring, and the letting go of the past, and is one of the most important events in the Chinese calendar.

To join in the celebrations and mark the Chinese Year of the Monkey, we thought we’d take a look at the perhaps surprising semantic influences this ancient civilisation has had on our own language:

Tea

Arguably the greatest contribution China has made to both our lifestyle and language is tea. We wager there are few of you who get through the day without at least one brew! The drink is first mentioned in English in 1655, having journeyed originally from the Mandarin chá, then later from the Malay te. The Chinese source also gives us the slang term ‘char’, used in English from the early years of the 20th century.

Chin Chin

People drinking something stronger than tea may well toast to the celebration by saying chin chin, or ‘cheers!’ Such well wishes stem from the 18th century Chinese greeting qing qing, meaning ‘please please’ or ‘happy days’. Another double word expression we’ve adopted is chop chop, for quickly. This is a pidgin Chinese interpretation of kuaì-kuaì, meaning ‘quick’ or ‘nimble’, and is also found in chopstick, from kuàizi, which literally means nimble ones.

(Bonus fact: when we talk of a language being pidgin – that is, simplified in order for non-native speakers to communicate – we are using a Chinese term adopted from an altered form of the English word ‘business’.)

Ketchup

Our favourite red relish is a surprising entry in this list, coming not, as we thought, from America, but from the Far East. Introduced into the English language at the end of the 17th century, the name stems from the Cantonese k’ē chap, or ‘tomato juice’.

Gung-Ho

This enthusiastic exclamation – denoting something or someone who is unthinkingly eager, especially about fighting– has been used in English since World War II. It comes from the Chinese gōnghé, meaning ‘to work together’, and was adopted as a slogan by the US Marines fighting in the Pacific.

Feng Shui

The ancient Chinese system of designing buildings and arranging rooms became increasingly popular in 1990s Britain, though the word itself goes back a long way in English, appearing in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1797. Whilst we’ve simply adopted the Chinese term as our own, it is interesting to note that the sentiment stems from fēng, for ‘wind’, and shuǐ, for ‘water’.

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