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tea

All the tea in China: English words of Chinese origin

An extract from the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins

Chinese civilization stretches back at least to the 3rd millennium BC. It is the source of many of the world’s great inventions, including paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing, not to mention china (porcelain) itself.

But maybe the greatest contribution that the country and its language have made to the Western world is tea. The drink is first mentioned in English in 1655. The Chinese source chá also gives us the slang term char, as in ‘a nice cup of char’, used from the early years of the 20th century. The Chinese connection is remembered in the emphatic refusal not for all the tea in China, first found in US English in the early 20th century.

People drinking something stronger than tea might say chin-chin, or ‘cheers!’ This is a mangled pronunciation of qing qing, a Chinese greeting. Another ‘doubled’ word is chop-chop, or ‘quickly’. Chop here is a pidgin Chinese rendition of Chinese kuaì ‘quick, nimble’, and is also found in chopstick.

Our range of savoury relishes was extended when traders introduced us to ketchup at the end of the 17th century. The name may come from Chinese k’ē chap ‘tomato juice’. Contact with imperial China in the early 19th century introduced Westerners to the Chinese custom of kowtowing—kneeling down and touching the forehead on the ground in worship or submission. The word means literally ‘to knock the head’.

Ginseng is a plant whose root is credited with various health-giving and medicinal properties. Its Chinese name, rénshén, literally means ‘man root’, a reference to the root’s forked shape, which supposedly resembles a person.

Gung-ho, meaning ‘unthinkingly enthusiastic and eager, especially about fighting’, dates from the Second World War. It is from Chinese gōnghé ‘to work together’, and was adopted as a slogan by the US Marines fighting in the Pacific under General Evans Carlson (1896–1947). He organized ‘kung-hoi’ meetings to discuss problems and explain orders to promote cooperation.

Increasing interest in our living spaces in the 1990s led to the popularity of feng shui, the ancient Chinese system of designing buildings and arranging objects in rooms to achieve a positive flow of energy and so bring happiness or good luck. It goes back a long way in English, and even had an entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1797. Not all our Chinese words are ancient, though. China’s first manned space flight in 2003 gave us taikonaut, a Chinese astronaut—taikong means ‘outer space’.

Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins

Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins is also available on Oxford Reference.

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