Fascinating Origin of 15 Chinese Words That Became Part of the English Vocabulary

by Sher D Fly

The history of English language traces back thousands of years ago. The English language has brought in influences of other languages through Britain’s history of world trade, overseas exploration and expansion. One of the many languages that had added the zest to the English vocabulary is Chinese.

Kowtow
This word actually came from a Cantonese words “ko” or knock and “tou” or head. “Kotou” is a Chinese custom of kneeling and touching the forehead to the ground to show great respect or to show obvious deference. During the British trading with the Chinese, somewhere around the 19th century, the word kowtow was usually referred to the act of being submissive, humble and respectful to someone in the local authority.

Chop
Originally, this word was from Cantonese word “kap” which means urgent or fast. The word chop-chop now is usually used (normally in British English) as an expression when you want someone to hurry, move quickly and without delay. In actual fact, the root word chop was also used in the word “chopsticks” to refer to the two thin sticks used as eating utensils in many Far Eastern countries.

Char
This word actually came from a Mandarin word “cha” or tea. Char is an old British word to refer to a cup of tea. The word “tea” in modern English was also questionably of Chinese origin. The Dutch, who was the lead importer of tea leaves through the Dutch East India Company during the early 17th century, used the word “thee” which was derived from the Chinese Amoy dialect “t”e’ or Indo-Malay “teh”.

Chow
This word actually came from a Cantonese word which originally meant stir fry cooking. Perhaps, influenced by the Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th century, the word “chow” has become an American English slang word to refer to food or eat as in “chowing down the bread”. There are also other spin-off words using the root word “chow” in informal English such as chowtime and chowhound.

Ketchup
The word came from Indo-Malay word “kechap” which was derived from Chinese Amoy “ketsiap”, originally to refer to fish sauce condiments. Resulting from influences from Europe and America, ketchup now refers to tomato sauce.

Sampan
This word was a combination of two Cantonese words, “sam” or three and “baan” or board, which basically refers to a small, flat-bottomed boat, usually propelled by two short oars. The three boards probably refer to the three pieces of planks separating the sections in the boat. This type of boat is usually used in rivers and harbors in the Far East.

Feng shui
This word came from Mandarin words “feng” or wind and “shui” or water. This is actually an ancient Chinese art or method of designing buildings as well as arranging objects in living spaces to ensure positive energy so that it could bring luck, prosperity and happiness to the owner. The art of feng shui became quite popular in the American and European culture since 1990s.

Cumshaw
The word came from Chinese Amoi dialect “kam si” for feeling gratitude. The word is now used in informal English to refer to gratuity or present.

Yin Yang
This words were from Mandarin word “yin” or feminine and dark as well as the word “yang” or masculine and bright. It basically refers to the passive and active, principles in nature that in Chinese thought eternally interact and complement each other to achieve a perfect balance.

Chinese dishes – Chop suey, chow mein, dim sum, won ton, tofu
Chinese food has increasingly become popular in the US and Europe and I am pretty sure most of you are familiar with some of these Chinese dishes.

  • Chop suey for instance, came from Cantonese “shap” or miscellaneous and “sui” or pieces, is actually a popular Chinese dish of shredded meat with vegetables, served with rice.
  • Chow mein which came from Cantonese word is a famous Chinese stir fried dish made with meat, vegetables and noodles
  • “Dim sum” or little hearts are deliciously steamed or fried dumplings served in small portion
  • Won ton which means “cloud swallow” in Cantonese is another type of dumplings which looks like little clouds
  • Tofu came from Mandarin “doufu” for bean curd

Wok
This word came from Cantonese “wohk” or a round bottomed cooking pot with a long extension (for holding), often used for stir frying. This cooking utensil is often used in China and South East Asia. Nevertheless, wok is now a popular cooking utensil used in many parts of the world, especially for cooking stir fried Chinese dishes.

Gung-ho
This word was from a Mandarin word “gonghe” or a cooperative for industrial workers. Somehow, the word was used informally by the American army during the World War II as a motto which basically means “to work together”. It was even adopted as a war film title in 1943. The word now refers to eager or excessively enthusiastic individuals in ironic sense.

Honcho
The word came from Chinese words “han” or squad and “cho” or chief. During the World War II, British army used this word to refer to the leader of the squad. This word now refers to someone who is in charge of something, a manager or a leader.

Kao lin
This word refers to fine white clay used in making ceramics and medicines especially in treating diarrhea. This word came from the name of a mountain in Gaoling, China whereby such clay was first obtained and exported to Europe in 18th century.

Shanghai
This word was originally taken from the name of a place – Shanghai in China. It was said that this word evolved from the practice of American sea captains who tricked and kidnapped drunk sailors for compulsory service aboard their ships usually bound for China. Now, this word is a slang to refer to the act of inducing or compelling someone to do something by force or fraud.