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13 English Words You Didn’t Know Have an Origin in Chinese, Arabic, or Japanese — Part 1

August 15, 2013

Many of us are in the habit of thinking about culture as something that affects language, but have you ever considered how the way we talk and communicate can affect the way we think and act? For example, if my parents named me King, how would that change my view of myself compared to if they had named me Mud? This may be an extreme example of how language can shape thought, but real-life examples abound as well. Check out a few of our favorite English loan words from Chinese (subsequent entries will focus on Arabic and Japanese loan words)– do these words’ appearance surprise you? How do they show the effect that language can have on culture?

-- Yen (Craving)

From Cantonese 癮, lit. addiction (to opium)

“I’ve got a yen for some pastrami on rye!” Although I have been using this word every 3-5 weeks for about 7 years, I never knew that the origin of the word “yen” came from Cantonese – a relic of China’s Opium Wars.

-- Chop Chop

From Cantonese chuk chuk 速速, lit. hurry, urgent

“Johnson! I need that report on my desk, chop chop!” From raw speculation, it’s anyone’s guess as to where this phrase originated from (maybe a quickly moving knife?), but some good old-fashioned etymology shows us that it, too, comes from Cantonese.

-- No Can Do

From 不可以 (bù kěyǐ)


Long time no see

From 好久不見 (Hǎojiǔ bùjiàn)

Sometimes, phrases are translated word-for-word and become well-known colloquialisms. These two expressions were first used in Pidgin English (a form of English spoken between local Chinese people and English-speaking immigrants, where the grammar is borrowed from various Southern Chinese dialects). Later, they were preserved in Chinese immigrant communities in the United States, and are now common turns of phrase for Americans of all ethnicities.

-- Brainwashing

From 洗腦 (xǐnǎo) (where 洗 literally means "wash", while 腦 means "brain", hence brainwash)

This term came about after the Korean War, when 24 of the American troops held in a Chinese POW camp chose to stay in China after the ceasefire rather than return to the United States. Check out this fascinating documentary (below) which discusses, among other issues, whether the troops were ‘brainwashed’ – a then new concept in American culture. Members of the American media couldn't believe that these young men would willingly decide to stay in China rather than return home, and so they picked up on the Chinese word which literally means "brain wash" to describe what - to the average McCarthy-fearing American - was the only possible means of explaining that behavior.

If you are also interested in knowing of English load words from Japanese and Arabic, stay tuned on Cheng & Tsui's blog in next two weeks!