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Dim sum small

Having a yen for dim sum this Chinese New Year: English words of Chinese origin

Chinese New Year traditionally means a time for families to gather together, usually over some delicious foods. There are certain foods that are associated with Chinese New Year, such as Buddha’s Delight, a dish made with many different vegetables, fish, dumplings, and mandarin oranges. These particular foods are chosen because the words used to describe them in Chinese are all homonyms of auspiciousness.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese language has given English quite a few food related terms. Some that spring to mind include chop suey or 雜碎 tsaâp suì in Cantonese for ‘mixed bits’ which is actually an American Chinese dish thought to be based on throwing together left over vegetables for a quick dish. Dim sum also comes from Cantonese, 點心 dím sàm or literally ‘dot’ and ‘heart’ which evokes the sense of something that touches the heart. Dim sum is a series of small dishes, usually served in the morning hours. Dishes are usually served by small trolleys which are pushed around the restaurant offering each table different offerings. Dim sum can also be called yum cha in English, which literally means ‘(to) drink tea’ 飲茶 (yám chàh) and in Cantonese dim sum refers to just the food, while yum cha is the whole experience, including the food.

Drinking the black dragon

Speaking of drinking tea, oolong tea comes from 烏龍 wūlóng, literally ‘black dragon’. It seems the jury is out on the exact origin, but some suggest it has been named ‘black dragon’ because the tea leaves are long, dark, and curly. As well as tea, China is also known for its noodles such as chow mein which comes from 炒面 chǎo miàn ‘stir-fried noodles’. Ramen, which came into English via Japanese, possibly has origins in the Chinese 拉麺 lāmiàn meaning ‘pulled or stretched noodles’.

No Chinese meal is complete without chopsticks, which come from Chinese Pidgin English chop meaning ‘quick’ (think of chop-chop) and English sticks, likely inspired from the original Chinese  筷子kuàizi or ‘nimble ones’. Chopsticks are often given as wedding presents since kuàizi sounds similar to 孩子háizi ‘child/children’. It is seen as a wish for the couple to have children soon.

From kung-fu to gung-ho

Chinese food is an obvious influence, but Chinese words have also made an impact on English in other spheres, from martial arts (kung-fu and t’ai chi ch’uan) to philosophy (feng shui and yin-yang). Other words and expressions which have come to English from Chinese include: kow-tow, to have a yen for, to save face, gung-ho, and no can do.

Kiasu is another word of Chinese origin which has recently entered the English language, although it is perhaps not well known outside of South-East Asia and Singapore. It is an intriguing word which can be used as a noun to describe a selfish attitude, or as an adjective to mean a potentially selfish person who takes advantage of every opportunity possible. As both English and Chinese thrive as global languages of communication and commerce, I have no doubt that we shall see more Chinese words make their way into English, each hopefully as unique or interesting as kiasu.

Allow me not to miss the opportunity to offer wishes of prosperity for the New Year, or as the Chinese would say 恭喜發財 (Gōngxǐ Fācái in Mandarin or Gùng Héi Faat Chòih in Cantonese)!

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