English Words You Might not Know Originate from China

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You might not realize it, but some expressions and words we use day-to-day originated in China.

I don’t know about you, but this gives me some hope when I look with dread at the long list of Chinese characters I need in order to learn the Chinese language. 

This list of Chinese-English expressions and words can be split into two parts: translations and loanwords.

Translations are self-explanatory. A good example are Chinese idioms or greetings like “好久不见” (haojiu bújiàn), which literally translates to “Long time no see”. Only after coming to China did I realize this everyday expression was, in its essence, exactly like the Chinese version. At the time, it made me smile to know that two very different cultures use the same greeting to express happiness at seeing friends and family whom they haven’t seen for a while.

Loanwords, on the other hand, are completely adopted and incorporated (sometimes with small changes) from another language without translation. This, essentially, means you are using a Chinese word mixed in with English. This article will look at some of those.

Here is a very short list of 10 Chinese loanwords you might not have realized come all the way from China!

1. Dim Sum

Standard Mandarin Chinese: 点心 (dianxīn)

As soon as I mentioned loanwords, you might have already thought of this one. Dim Sum are tasty dishes that are served at Chinese Cantonese restaurants. They include anything from savory to sweet treats that come in small cute dishes or bamboo steamers.

2. Ginseng

Standard Mandarin Chinese: 参 (shēn)

Even if you don’t realize it, you might have already drunk some ginseng, as it’s a common ingredient in caffeinated drinks. In China, ginseng is used in traditional medicine and it’s thought to have many health benefits.

3. Guanxi

Standard Mandarin Chinese: 关系 (guān’xì)

This word has made headlines recently as it’s now included in the Oxford English dictionary. The Oxford dictionary references Guanxi as “A Chinese social concept based on the exchange of favors, in which personal relationships are considered more important than laws and written agreements”. That meaning casrries over to English.

4. Gung-Ho

Standard Mandarin Chinese: 工合 (gōng hé)

This is one of my favorites. In English, Gung-ho means to show great enthusiasm for something, whereas in Chinese it means to work collectively to achieve something.

5. Chop chop

Cantonese: 速速 (cuk1 cuk1) Standard Mandarin Chinese:  快快 (kuài kuài)

You’ve probably heard this one quite a few times. We all know it means “hurry up and get a move on”. This expression in Chinese means to be in a hurry!

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6. Chow

Standard Mandarin Chinese: 炒 (chǎo)

Another food related word! Although this one is often used to tell someone off for eating like an animal! It’s Chinese meaning is still related to food, meaning to stir-fry something.

7. Lychee

Chinese: 荔枝 (lìzhī)

One of my favorite summer fruits, Lychee is widely used, even in savory dishes, across Asia. The meaning of the word is exactly the same in both languages.

8. Kung Fu

Chinese: 功夫 (gōngfu)

Kung Fu sounds the same and has the exact same meaning in both languages as well. It’s a form of martial arts.

9. Kowtow

Chinese: 叩头 (kòutóu)

The usual meaning of this word both in English and Chinese is the same. It implies “to bow down”. However, it’s interesting that the real meaning when used in everyday language is different. In English, to bow down to someone is seen as having a weak character, whereas in Chinese it means you are showing respect.

10. Ketchup

Cantonese: 茄汁 (ke2zap2)

Last but not least, I was so shocked when I found out about this one. It’s thought this word originates from a Chinese a local pickled fish sauce that has the same name, which, to me, doesn’t sound as appealing as tomato Ketchup! Ketchup refers to sauces in both languages. 

Here is an article from the National Geographic about how ketchup was invented.

This is just a small list of Chinese loanwords we use in our daily life. If you continue exploring this topic, you’ll be surprised how many English words come from China!


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