The Economist: ‘Why so little Chinese in English?’

Posted on Fri 07 Jun 2013 @ 2.41pm UTC

Updated 17 June 2013 (new, more topical GIF image)

THE highly respected ‘Johnson’ blog on The Economist website has this latest article on language borrowing:—

“ON TWITTER, a friend asked ‘Twenty years from now, how many Chinese words will be common parlance in English?’ I replied that we’ve already had 35 years since Deng Xiaoping began opening China’s economy, resulting in its stratospheric rise—but almost no recent Chinese borrowings in English.

“[…] Most Chinese words now part of English show, in their spelling and meaning, to have been borrowed a long time ago, often from non-Mandarin Chinese varieties like Cantonese.”

— R.L.G. | Johnson (blog) | The Economist | 06 Jun 2013 (Link)

Here’s my take:—

More interesting is the even smaller number of English words going the other way into Chinese.

Even more interestingly, practically no one has ever discussed why this has been so — at least not in language that the reasonably educated could understand.

But when English words do happen to travel into Chinese, we might just end up with something totally … ahem … unique — mostly Sino-English bastardisations, such as those highlighted in the article English words with Chinese characteristics (Offbeat China | 25 Feb 2011):—

antizen, departyment, don’train, eggache, eggcalm,  emotionormal, freedamn, gambller, geilivable, goveruption, halfyuan, nubility, profartssor, propoorty, shability, shitizen, smilence, togayther, vegesteal, z-turn, zhuangbility

About the only ‘sino-anglophonisms’ (Chinese words that sound like English words) that the average anglophone could fathom any sense are the ones in boldfaced.

freedamn (noun) the kind of freedom one can enjoy in China

profartssor (noun) professors who speak ignorance or nonsense, especially when these professors speak in favour of certain stupid government policies

shitizen (noun) a citizen with no power, no background, no money and no attention from the government: a word used by netizens in China to describe both themselves and the Chinese public in general

“It is clear that some of these words are created for fun, while others are created with bitterness and sarcasm.”
— ‘English words with Chinese characteristics’ | Offbeat China | 25 Feb 2011

More’s the pity? But at least the newbie Putonglish sounds English enough. Amen to that.


(via Offbeat China)

THE Economist rightly mentions some Chinese words that have become internalised into the English language as “impeccably English words we use with no reference to China itself”—

  • kowtow (磕頭) | verb, noun | since 1795–1805
  • gungho, gung ho (更好) | noun, adjective | americanism | since ca. 1942
  • to shanghai | verb | since the 19th century
  • kung fu (功夫 ‘effort’) | noun, adjective | since mid-1960s

It missed out ketchup (ultimately from Cantonese keh tsap 茄汁, tomato sauce/juice).

egg foo yong

Egg foo yong (fuyong)

(via trialx)

One Chinese food name deserves special mention.

Be surprised no more that the omlette-like dish known as egg foo yong (芙蓉蛋勇 ‘hibiscus brave egg’, now usually fuyong, fu yung) is in fact a true-blue americanism. A Jewish gentleman with a heavy penchant for Chinese food invented both dish and name in San Francisco. The historic first reference to the dish was in 1874 in a San Francisco Call newspaper advertisement. The inventor’s name is now lost to history. By 1900–05, fuyong was already a permanent fixture in American culinary tastes along with other American inventions such as Crab Rangoon, chop suey and sweet-and-sour pork.

In those days, Jews in America quickly developed a partiality to Chinese food. There were two important reasons for this.

The first was that people then were more orthodox in religious practices. Most restaurateurs were Christian and did no business on Sundays because Christians generally had home meals after church. So Jews (and the unreligious) were stuck on Sundays. Chinese restaurants usually stayed open on Sundays, however, because there were practically no Chinese Christians.

The second was that Chinese restaurants at the time were willing to prepare whatever a Jew ordered, on or off menu. Jews were more orthodox then and observed Kashrut dietary restrictions more closely than today. Jews saw Chinese food as a highly suitable alternative because (unlike ‘Christian’ food) it didn’t mix meat with diary products. Also, the meat in many Chinese dishes are easily substitutable; the ham in fuyong for Chinese customers can be remade easily with only vegetables or with duck or fish for Jewish customers.

“Much of what has been served in Chinese restaurants in America is virtually impossible to find in China.”
‘As All-American As Egg Foo Yong’ by Michael Luo| The New York Times | 22 Sept 2004


sha yung

The Ottoman sugared egg puffs, rebadged as a Chinese dish

(via Asian Dumpling Tips)

While fuyong was making its appearance in 1870s America, the traditional Ottoman sugared egg puffs (photo above) started appearing in China roughly the same time.

The person responsible was coincidentally the fuyong inventor’s second cousin twice removed in Shanghai. He rebadged the Ottoman dish with the Mandarin name bǎi téng shā wēng 佰腾沙翁 (‘hundred soaring sandy old fellow’) — more familiarly known to the Cantonese as sha yung 沙翁.

Clearly, the fuyong inventor’s family had viral marketing talent if not culinary talent.

chinese tattoo

(via Fiverr)

The Economist article mentions a few more Chinese-derived ‘English’ words, which (notwithstanding what the article says) I think probably still have a small degree of Chinese connection:—

  • taichi, tai chi (太極) | since the 1960s
  • fengshui, feng shui (風水) | since 1795–1800
  • baak choi (白菜), more commonly bok choy in the USA | since the 1950s | the vegetable Brassica rapa, especially B. rapa pekinensis and B. rapa chinensis
  • chowmein (炒麵) | americanism | since 1900–05


THE English language is super well known for constantly borrowing from other languages. It has been for literally centuries. The adoption process occurs in six main ways and there is considerable overlap.

1. Easier to say

its a lot easier to say

(via Quoteswave)

English will adopt a foreign word that is generally simpler for English speakers to say than force an awkward English expression.

The prime example is flak, meaning ‘anti-aircraft cannon fire.’ Indeed, the term anti-aircraft cannon fire itself is a literal translation of two German compound words, from which the Germans produced the German short word Flak:—

  • Fliegerabwehrkanone (Flieger + Abwehr + Kanone, aircraft + defence + cannon)
  • Fliegerabwehrkanonefeuer (‘anti-aircraft cannon fire’) > Flakfeuer > Flak

Even Germans find their own mother tongue a bit of a mouthful when it comes to compound words.

Blitz is another well-known example (from Blitzkrieg, ‘lightning war’).

A less well-known example is fricasee or fricasée (since 1560–70, to mince and stew then serve in own juice or sauce), which in a way overlaps with the category below.


2. No equivalent

different or what

(via c4c)

Broadly speaking, English will adopt a foreign word to describe things in physical reality, concept or origin if it has no practical equivalent. English is replete with such words. Once these foreign words have settled into the language as English words, they are not italicised.

A small selection of loan words that are now bona fide English words (therefore never italicised):—

  • aide-de-camp (since 1665–70)
  • angst (since 1840–50)
  • anime (Japanese アニメ which instead in Chinese is dòng-màn 動漫 / 动漫)
  • automat (a restaurant that dispenses food from coin-operated compartments)
  • barista (Italian, ‘barkeeper’)
  • bona fide (Latin, ‘in good faith’)
  • bonsai (Japanese 盆栽 which instead in Chinese is pén-jǐng 盆景)
  • cheongsam (Cantonese 長衫 but Mandarin is qí-páo 旗袍) *
  • coffee klatsch (or just klatsch) (German Kaffeeklatsch)
  • coup d’etat (the correct French expression is coup d’Etat)
  • delicatessen (German)
  • fengshui (Chinese 風水 / 风水)
  • fugu (Japanese ふぐ or 河豚 blowfish, globefish)
  • futon (Japanese 布団, Chinese 蒲團)
  • gweilo, gwailo (foreigner: Cantonese 鬼佬, but Mandarin lǎowài 老外)
  • haiku (Japanese 俳句)
  • honcho (Japanese 班長: squad leader, otherwise “guv’nor” in Cockney English)
  • ikebana (Japanese 生け花 which instead in Chinese is huā-dào 花道)
  • jiu-jitsu (Japanese 柔術)
  • judo (Japanese 柔道)
  • kabuki (Japanese 歌舞伎: a form of Japanese classical drama)
  • kamikaze (Japanese 神風)
  • karaoke (Japanese カラオケ)
  • karate (Japanese 空手: more correctly karate-do 空手道)
  • kimono (Japanese 着物)
  • kindergarten (German)
  • kitsch (German Yiddish)
  • laisee (Cantonese 利是 which instead in Mandarin is hóng-bāo 紅包)
  • manga (Japanese, but Chinese mànhuà: both are 漫畫 / 漫画)
  • ninja (Japanese 忍者, which in Chinese is correctly dùn shù xiá 鈍術俠) (see below)
  • noh, nōgaku (Japanese 能楽)
  • non compos mentis (Latin, ‘not of sound mind’)
  • origami (Japanese 折り紙, which instead in Chinese is zhé-zhǐ 摺紙 / 折纸)
  • pachinko (Japanese パチンコ, Chinese transliteration 柏青哥)
  • pied-a-terre (French pied à terre)
  • prima facie (Latin, ‘on first impressions’)
  • samurai (Japanese 武士)
  • shogun (将軍), shogunate (幕府) (both Japanese)
  • sumo (Japanese すも)
  • tofu (Japanese, but Chinese daofu: both are 豆腐)
  • tsunami (Japanese 津波, which instead in Chinese is hǎi-xiào 海嘯 / 海啸)
  • tycoon (Japanese 大物, but Chinese is jù-tóu 巨頭 / 巨头 ‘giant head’)
  • wasabi (Japanese わさび)
  • wok (Chinese 鍋, but Japanese is chūkanabe 中華鍋 ‘China wok’)
  • yen (as in yearning, ache, hanker, craving: Chinese 覬 / 觊)
  • Zen (Chinese, Japanese 禅 / 禪)

* Cheongsam (長衫) and qí-páo (旗袍) are in fact two different (but admittedly very similar-looking) styles of Chinese women’s dress. More’s the pity that qí-páo has become the favoured politically correct term supplanting cheongsam. Wikipedia’s entry is in factual error because Wikipedia editors used references (dating from only 1997–2012) that stem from post-1949 references produced by the Chinese state media. Of course, Wikipedia editors might just take an alternative opinion because they’re morons and probably have never seen a cheongsam alongside a real, live qí-páo (formerly ch’í-p’áo).


Update 16 June 2013

An interesting digression: ‘Ninja’

This section is now the sidebar ‘Ninja’ really is invisible ninja.

Our sidebar is probably the world’s only online explanation
on the correct Chinese translation for the Japanese word ninja.


3. Distinguishing differences

English borrows foreign words to help distinguish differences, oftentimes for technical reasons.

nasa storms map

(via NASA The Space Place)

The classic example is hurricane vs. typhoon. Technically, hurricane is a storm west of the GMT Meridian and typhoon is one east of it, though typhoon is usually used to denote any storm in the Asian-Pacific region not beyond the International Date Line.

Tsunami vs. tidal wave is another good example (again, technical) that is well remembered by those spent their formative years in the 1960s and ’70s in places such as Hawaii and environs.


4. First usage

my first time

(via O Dock)

English has a longstanding habit of adopting foreign words that denote phenomena or objects that originated or were first described by the foreign country or culture.

flamethrower patentAgain, the classic modern example is tsunami (also called seismic sea wave). It was first used in 1900–05 as a technical term. Unfortunately, it has always played second fiddle to the inaccurate tidal wave in almost all usages (particularly in mainstream media) until the 1970s, when tsunami once again became the correct description.

(A tidal wave and a tsunami are two totally different things in nature and in cause.)

Another example not often mentioned is avant-garde (from which came the English word vanguard). Indeed, both avant-garde and vanguard were already in use in English since 1475–85 until vanguard became more used after the 16th century. Avant-garde became practically forgotten in English until the 20th century, when artistic circles gave it the kiss of life once again.

Flamethrower is another example whose first-time original (1915) was the German Flammenwerfer, which translates exactly into English. Even Chinese had to comply substantially with the German form as 噴火器 (pēn-huǒ qì, ‘spray fire implement’).

(Image of flamethrower patent via Milua.)


5. Trade, culture and war

napalm the real thing

It’s the Real Thing for S.E. Asia
Artist Unknown

Berkeley, California, 1970
(via Political Graphics)

Words from foreign lands enter into the English vocabulary (and psyche) through trade, cultural exchange and conflict. In this category, the list is endless and neverending.

Below are some English words are so highly English-looking that they show near-zero hint of their foreign origins, or even any change of form from their originals:—

(Some words may not be 100% English-looking. Your mileage may vary.)

(Boldfaced words are those that most people think are out-and-out English.)

  • admiral, alarm, alcove, amalgam, amalgamate, arcade, arsenal, average
  • balcony, balloon, ballot, bronze, buckram, bulletin, bunker
  • calibre (AmE caliber), candy, carcass, carpet, cartoon, cash, check (verb and noun), cheque (noun), chick, cot (camp bed, baby bed), cork, cotton, cushy (as in ‘comfortable’)
  • denouement (sometimes dénouement), drub (as in ‘giving a drubbing’: from the practice of bastinado)
  • fanfare, figurine, fuck, furor (furore)
  • gallery, garbage, garble, gauze, ghoul, granite, gunge (UK, cf. slime in the USA), gunnery (gunnery sergeant), gunny (gunnysack)
  • hazard
  • jar (the container), jumper, jungle
  • lava, loot
  • magazine, magic, manage, mask, mattress, mug (as in mugger, mugging)
  • naive (sometimes naïve), naivety (but not naïvété)
  • paradise, pedal, pistol, policy, punch, pyke (a civilian who is required to entertain or serve a soldier)
  • race, racquet/racket (as in sport), rank, rice, ream (quantity of paper sheets), replica, rook, rookie
  • satin, scarlet (the colour), serendipity, sketch, soda, sofa, solo, spinach, sugar
  • tapestry, tare (the unfilled or empty weight of a package), tariff, tea (from Fukienese/Hokkien deh), tempo, traffic
  • umbrella
  • vivid
  • wadding
  • zero

Many of these and other loan words that English adopted as its own sons are also no longer italicised except when done during technical linguistic discussion.


6. Culturally specific

bollocks innit

Sometimes a foreign word is  used in place of a homegrown English expression in order to carry off a certain degree of knowledgeability or some form of exclusiveness or snobbery (especially in an academic setting). In this manner, the usage is often culturally specific.

Again, the list is also endless for words that can possibly come under this category, depending on how much ‘exclusivity’ the user wants from using foreign words — and how creatively the user force-feeds the foreign word into his or her English-language discourse.

  • doppelganger (German Doppelgänger)
  • fascistellucci
  • guanxi
  • schadenfreud (German Schadenfreud)
  • Weltanschauung

The real problem here is the part about being culturally specific.

When a word comes under this category, five hard-hitting questions immediately comes to mind and screaming for an answer:—

  1. Is it being used as an English word or intact as a foreign word?
  2. Is it being used in an English setting or its original foreign setting?
  3. Is it being used in the context of a foreign culture or the English one?
  4. If it’s used in the context of a foreign or English culture, would that be a language culture, a sociocultural culture or something else?
  5. Is it being used that you know what the hell it means anyway?

Draw your own conclusions.


So why the dearth of Chinese words in English?

gif ricky gervais giggling T5hhoXG

“X is not hard, if you put in the effort and the hours.”

(via imgur)

I think a commenter in that Economist article puts it rather well:—

“My guess is that there just aren’t enough English speakers learning the various Chinese dialects and bringing words back yet. And since China and the West have been in contact long enough to have exchanged most of the words for physical objects, it’s only the abstract concepts left, which take a deeper understanding.”
— comment from user ‘mantonat’

And that deeper understanding is going to take a lot longer time to happen before words start getting new passports because of a very real yet natural barrier — Chinese is quite hard to learn (or — if it pleases you more — not easy to learn).

Japanese and Korean are perhaps a wee harder still than Chinese, but that’s another story for another day.

Some people* might just take an alternative opinion. Much of the opinions of the detractors revolve around a singularly stupid excuse eminently reasonable supposition shown in the picture above.

ejaculated quickly e549_uju07

(via mix4fun)

* Most notably those in the field of linguistics — particularly (and peculiarly) those Westerners with a formal background in linguistics who study or ‘dig’ Chinese/Asian languages AND live in China/Asia).

[WE know who you are!—Editor]

I’m in no position to pass judgment on this score. I myself spent fully seven years trying to learn how to read and write Chinese — a timeframe that’s actually two years longer than my entire elementary-to-secondary education — all to no avail.

(Indeed, my absolute whole education from elementary school through to university came to just eight years, much of which time and educational content have been shredded to ribbons over 13 different countries because of the antics professional obligations of my parents.)

Clearly, under the detractors’ term of reference, I hadn’t put in enough effort or sufficient hours for my Chinese-language studies.

I make no excuse for my failure. The motorcycles, the boozing, the chicks, the bozo’ing around, etc, have all come back at me.

It’s not my fault. The motorbikes have been homo-erotically muscled, the boozing was free enough, the chicks hot, and the bozo’ing around senselessly hilarious.

But here’s the rub. An absolute majority of native Chinese speakers who grew up in authentic Chinese-speaking countries or regions (and lived nowhere else) have long told me even they found Chinese to be quite hard-going too.

Again, I pass no judgment because it is possible that they too didn’t put in the effort or the hours to learn their mother tongue (or dialects). Variety is the spice of life, and life has many distractions and temptations. Far be it for me to judge the spice and dice of others.

I suppose the supposition of enough effort and enough hours has to be reasonable, since it’s unanswerable.

In return, though, I often get asked if my background (law) had been difficult to learn.

Not if you put in the effort and the hours…

pink motorbike

(via Found Shit)


Images: Sources as shown. All other images by author or in author’s collection.

© Learn English or Starve, 2013. (B13185)
Updated 17 June 2013 (new GIF image)
Updated 24 Sept 2013 (typo fixes, updates, reformatting)

Posted in: Colour Section