The surprising Chinese origins of common English phrases

English derives the bulk of its vocabulary from French, German and an assortment of other world languages. But we don't often think of China — which is half a world away from England — as influencing our speech. Writing in the blog Tea Leaf Nation, Anzia Mayer pinpoints a few everyday words and phrases that most likely find their origins in the Middle Kingdom.

Kumquats have Chinese origins. AP Photo/Matthew Mead
Kumquats have Chinese origins. (Matthew Mead/AP)

Here are just a few:

Ketchup: In the 17th and 18th centuries, Chinese sea traders traveling throughout Southeast Asia popularized a fish sauce they called "kôe-chiap" or "kê-chiap." British explorers stumbled across the sauce in modern-day Malaysia and Singapore, and couldn't get enough.

But how did it become tomato-y, rather than fishy?

"The recipe for ketchup has changed quite dramatically over time; tomatoes were only added to the recipe around 1800, and sugar even later, well after the Civil War," writes Stanford University linguistics professor Dan Jurafsy, who studied the condiment's history.

Kumquat: Kumquats, the tiny orange fruit, get their pronunciation from the Cantonese kam kwat, literally meaning, “golden orange.”

Gung ho: Mayer says this one dates back to World War II:

Pronounced gōng hé (工合) in Mandarin, the phrase “gung ho” is derived from characters that literally mean “work together,” but is an abbreviation of gōngyè hézuòshè (工业合作社), the Chinese term for a cooperative. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “gung ho” was adopted into English as a 1942 World War II slogan coined by Pacific-based United States Marine Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, who talked about having “kung-hou” meetings with his unit.

Can you think of any others? Let us know in the comments. And read the full post at Tea Leaf Nation.

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Max Fisher · February 5, 2013

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