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.

Chinese Immigration Research Project

Who were the hardest workers on the Transcontinental Railroad? The Irish? The former slaves? No, it was the Chinese immigrants. Without Chinese Immigration, It would have taken many more years to complete. Although at first hated, Chinese immigrants grew to be respected by their many contributions to American society. The Chinese endured a hard voyage from China only to find backbreaking work. The immigrants started coming in the mid 1800’s and were treated horribly until the 1940’s. Even though they experienced anything from racist laws to anti-Chinese riots, the Chinese immigrants still managed to accomplish astonishing feats.

In China, There were two types of people: the very wealthy and the very poor. Rich people owned big houses. They had many servants, maids, and butlers. They practiced many beauty methods. The most painful was the binding of little girls’ feet. Small feet, called “lily feet”, were considered a mark of feminine beauty. It literally turned the girls into cripples. The poor people had nothing close to the life of a rich person. Many were rice farmers. At least they had something to eat. Those even poorer went hungry for days and had to resort to stealing from the farmers. The poor made up the majority of the Chinese population. Those people brought their hopes and dreams to America.

Beliefs made up an enormous part of life in China. The three main religions were Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Buddhism originated in India. Many people didn’t worship Confucianism, but still acknowledged it. The majority of the people worshiped Confucianism. These beliefs were started by Kong Fu Zi, who is better known by his Latin name, Confucius. Family honor also played an enormous role in China. Parents believed that children owed a debt to the parents for raising them. This “debt” could be repaid in many ways. One way would be to take care of their parents when they grew old. Another way was to send money to their parents, which many immigrants did. This was an essential part of Chinese lifestyle.

All men in China had to wear the same hairstyle. They shaved their forehead, and wore a long braid on the back of the head. The braids were called a queue. All men were required to wear them from the 1600’s to 1911. In the 1600’s, the Manchu Empire captured China. Queues symbolized loyalty to the Manchu rulers. Those who didn’t comply were committing treason and either imprisoned or executed. Without their queues, Chinese immigrants could not return to China. If it was cut off, they would have to grow a new one, which could take many years. After the overthrow of the Manchu government, in 1911, many Chinese people, in both China and America, cut off their queues in celebration of freedom.

The Opium Wars were a crucial element in immigration from China. China wanted to stop importing opium to China. The opium was turning many people in to mindless wanderers. When the British refused, the Chinese attacked merchant ships. The British retaliated by sending an armada. China was defeated and opium trade continued. China was no longer a closed nation. People could immigrate to other countries. Chinese immigrants flooded into California and the West Coast.

The immigration station most Chinese immigrants went to was Angel Island. It was like Ellis Island for the West Coast. However, immigrants could be detained for years. To express their sadness, immigrants carved poetry onto the walls. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, the poems were dismissed as graffiti. The conditions were much worse than Ellis Island. Angel Island is no longer an immigration station and is now a national monument.

There were not many jobs available to Chinese immigrants that came in the mid 1800’s. The immigrants either became miners, laundrymen, or opened restaurants. Most of the miners came because the Gold Rush of 1949. They heard rumors of “Gold Mountain”, a land where gold could be picked up off the ground. Most of the miners lived in San Francisco. Unlike the white miners, the Chinese miners didn’t argue and fight. They were cooperative and pooled their money together to buy new mines. Miners lived in conditions that were usually very dirty. Being a laundryman was worse than being a miner in some ways. Laundrymen worked over 14 hours a day. It was comparable to being a slave. Laundries popped up all over the west coast. Miners and laundrymen needed food, so immigrants opened restaurants. The Asian food is still eaten today.

In America, Chinese immigrants settled in areas that became known as Chinatowns. The biggest one was in San Francisco. It attracted every Chinese person in California. New immigrants could often meet relatives or friend in Chinatowns. People went there because it was like their old life. People spoke Chinese, wore Chinese clothes, kept Chinese customs, and ate the same food. The food was much healthier than the American food. It consisted of many fruits and vegetables. They boiled their tea (killing any germs in the water). Many parts of the Chinatown were filthy. People crammed in rooms to save money. The conditions were like this until the Earthquake of 1906. It destroyed the San Francisco Chinatown. This played a crucial role in Chinese immigration. Not only did the new Chinatown was much more hygienic, but also the immigration records were destroyed. Chinese immigrants claimed they were born here. This might not seem important, but it played a part in Chinese immigration.

Anyone born in this country is a citizen. The law states that any citizen of the U.S. can bring their offspring into the U.S. Many of the new “citizens” brought “paper sons” to America. Paper sons were usually the son of the immigrant’s friend. The paper sons had to be interrogated about their “father”. The immigrant and the paper son agreed on answers. The interrogation could last for hours. If he failed the test, he would be deported and sent back the China. Many Chinese boys came to America this way. “Hoping to catch a paper son in a lie, immigration officers asked specific questions, like `how many steps were in your father’s house?’.” The only reason for all the deceit is only because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. It was the first time an immigration limitation was passed on a certain group. It was signed by President Chester Arthur. It was ended in 1942, when China and the U.S. were allies in WWII. The wife of a Chinese general came to the U.S. She promoted the war. She also asked for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act and it was repealed.

Many Americans hated the Chinese immigrants. There were many reasons why Americans hated them. Some hated the Chinese because they were more successful than some Americans. On the other hand, others hated the Chinese because they looked so different. Some participated in anti-Chinese riots. Many Chinese immigrants were lynched. Others were severely injured. The worst riot lasted three days. The National Guard was called in, but even that wasn’t enough. Eventually, the Navy was called in, and the riot was broken up. These weren’t the only bigoted acts. Racist laws were passed to give the Chinese a hard time. The Sidewalk Ordinance prevented people from carrying poles with baskets on the ends. It was deliberately aimed at the Chinese. The Cubic Air Ordinance required every adult in San Francisco to have 500 cubic feet of living space. In addition, the Foreign Miners Act taxed all foreign miners if they owned gold mines. This deterred some miners from buying mines. Perhaps the most ruthless law was the Scott Act. It added to the Chinese Exclusion Act. It announced that all Chinese immigrants outside of the U.S. couldn’t come back in. At this time, about 20,000 immigrants were in China visiting their family.

Many people changed their attitudes towards the Chinese during WWII. WWII united China and the U.S; they had a common enemy: Japan. Many Chinese-Americans joined the military. Because at first they experienced racial prejudice, most of the Chinese-Americans were cooks. The few that actually fought were respected in the Army. Some even made it to be the Squad Leader. Because the Chinese were allies with the U.S. and the Japanese were its enemies, many stereotypical thoughts emerged. Chinese faces were said to be “kindly and honest”, and Japanese faces were said to be “cruel and arrogant”. This began an era of equality to the Chinese.

Chinese-Americans achieved great accomplishments. There were many important people. Michael Chang is a former professional tennis player. He was the youngest person to win a Grand Slam. He was also the first American to win the French Open in 34 years. Another important Chinese-American is Yo Yo Ma. He is a exceptional cellist who went to Juilliard School of Music. In addition, another Chinese-American is I. M. Pei. He is a renowned architect. He has designed the glass pyramid in from of the Louvre museum in Paris. Other buildings designed by him include the National Gallery of Art and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Furthermore, Jerry Yang founded Yahoo!. It is now a leading Internet brand. There are countless more significant people, but it is too many to list on paper.

Chinese Americans have made an enormous impact on American society. Like many of the immigrants from other countries, the Chinese immigrants were mostly poor. However when they got here, many were detained fro years at Angel Island. Those who did manage to get to the mainland received hate and prejudice from Americans. When the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, Chinese immigration was restricted. Some Chinese immigrants lied to the government, and said they were born in the U.S. That way, they brought their children or “paper sons” here. Even so, the children had to pass a difficult interrogation. The Chinese finally proved themselves in WWII, when they fought with the U.S. Life would be very different without the impact of Chinese-Americans.