7 English Phrases That Came from China

Every language is a living, breathing entity. Every year, Oxford Dictionary updates their database with new and sometimes strange words. I mean, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is a word in the Oxford Dictionary. We borrow words from popular culture, literature, music and other countries. Common words we use every day come from all over the world. For example, robot is a Czech word. It was the brainchild of the Czech playwright and journalist, Karel Čapek, who originally introduced the word in his 1920 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots. 

You might have heard of many of those, but did you know that tons of English words come have Chinese etymological roots? Here are some of our favorites!

1. Brainwashing (洗腦)

A calque of Chinese, where 洗 literally means “wash” while 腦 means brain. First used by the Army in China during the Korean War, it refers to, well exactly what you think it means, forcing someone to give up basic political, social and/or religious beliefs. It was popularized in the West after POW’s returned from Korea.

2. China (秦 or 晉)

I know this one sounds obvious, but we’re not talking about the Chinese name which is 中国. We’re talking about the English name. It originates from the characters 秦 or 晉 and influenced by Latin roots.

3. Ketchup (茄汁)

Not only did China come up with the word, it came up with the food! Well, not exactly. In the 17th century, the Chinese mixed a concoction of pickled fish and spices and called it kê-chiap (鮭汁) which comes from the Amoy dialect. It literally means the brine of pickled fish which, I have to admit, doesn’t sound too appealing. It eventually made its way over to Malaysia where it was later discovered by English explorers. The word gradually evolved into the English ketchup and thank goodness because I don’t know if I could handle pickled fish brine on my hotdogs.

4. Ramen (拉麵)

More famously associated with Japanese cuisine, the word ramen uses the sounds from the Chinese pronunciation of 拉面 which means pulled noodles. Ramen refers to a particular style flavored to Japanese taste so it’s not really the same anymore and tastes quite different from Chinese 拉麵.

5. Saving Face (面子)

Saving face is a crucial part of Chinese society. It can either be given or taken away. It is a measurable and quantifiable way to assess someone’s ranking within their peer group. Think of it as a credit system for someone’s reliability and trustworthiness.

6. Tofu (豆腐)

A word that strikes the fear of any non-vegetarian child at the dinner table, the word tofu originates in China. Similar to ramen, it was a word that was transliterated in to Japanese from the Chinese word 豆腐 (doufu). It has since expanded around the world and has provided us with the glorious experiment known as the “tofurkey.”

7. Long Time No See (好耐冇見)

Thank goodness for this one because it’s my go to for when I don’t know someone’s name in conversation. If you ever thought, “why is this phrase so choppy?” It’s because it is a literal translation from the Chinese (Cantonese) version, “Very Long Time No See”.  So the next time you’re stuck trying to remember someone’s name, keep this tidbit in your back pocket!


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