Ten English Words Borrowed from Chinese

Typhoon force 8 hits pedestrians in the street
The English word for typhoon is direct from the Chinese language. Here, Typhoon force 8 hits pedestrians in the street. Getty Images/Lonely Planet

Words taken completely or in part from another language are known as loanwords. In the English language, there are many loanwords that have been borrowed from Chinese languages and dialects.

A loanword is not the same as calque, which is an expression from one language that has been introduced into another language as a direct translation. Many English-language calques also have origins in Chinese.

Loanwords and calques are useful to linguists in examining when and how one culture processed its interaction with another.

Here are ten common English words that are borrowed from Chinese.

1. Coolie: While some claim that this term has its origins in Hindi, it’s been argued that it could also have origins in the Chinese term for hard work or 苦力 (kǔ lì) which is literally translated as “bitter labor.”

2. Gung Ho: The term has its origins in the Chinese word 工合 (gōng hé) that can either mean to work together or as an adjective to describe someone that is overly excited or too enthusiastic. The term gong he is a shortened word for industrial cooperatives which were created in China in the 1930s. During that time U.S. Marines adopted the term to mean someone with a can-do attitude.

3. Kowtow: From the Chinese 叩头 (kòu tóu) describing the ancient practice performed when anyone greeted a superior – such as an elder, leader, or emperor.

The person had to kneel and bow down to the superior, making sure that their foreheads hit the ground. “Kou tou” is literally translated as “knock your head.”

4. Tycoon: The origins of this word comes from the Japanese term taikun, which was what foreigners called the shogun of Japan. A shogun was known to be someone who took over the throne and is not related to the emperor.

Thus the meaning is typically used for someone who obtained power through might or hard work, rather than inheriting it. In Chinese, the Japanese term “​taikun” is 大王 (dà wáng) which means “big prince.” There are other words in Chinese that also describe a tycoon including 财阀 (cái fá) and 巨头 (jù tóu).

5. Yen: This term comes from the Chinese word 愿 (yuàn) which means a hope, desire or wish. Someone who has a strong urge for oily fast food can be said to have a yen for pizza.

6. Ketchup: The origins of this word are debated. But many believe that its origins are from either the Fujianese dialect for the fish sauce 鮭汁 (guī zhī ) or the Chinese word for eggplant sauce 茄汁 (qié zhī).

7. Chop Chop: This term is said to originate from the Cantonese dialect for the word 快快 (kuài kuài) which is said to urge someone to hurry up. Kuai means hurry in Chinese. “Chop Chop” appeared in English-language newspapers printed in China by foreign settlers as early as the 1800s.

8. Typhoon: This is probably the most direct loanword. In Chinese, a hurricane or typhoon is called 台风 (tái fēng).

9. Chow: While chow is a breed of dog, it should be clarified that the term did not come to mean 'food' because the Chinese hold the stereotype of being dog-eaters.

More likely, 'chow' as a term for food comes from the word 菜 (cài) which can mean food, a dish (to eat), or vegetables.

10. Koan: Originating in Zen Buddhism, a koan is a riddle without a solution, which is supposed to highlight the inadequacy of logic reasoning. A common one is “What is the sound of one hand clapping.” (If you were Bart Simpson, you would just fold one hand until you made a clapping noise.) Koan comes from the Japanese which comes from the Chinese for 公案 (gōng àn). Literally translated it means 'common case'.