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5 English Words That Come From China

5 English Words That Come From China

English words come from a lot of different languages, such as Greek, Latin and French. Today, let’s learn about five common English words that come from China!

1. Tea (n.)

The word “tea” comes from the word “t’e” — the word for “tea” in a Chinese language spoken in southern China.

The Dutch introduced us to this word. Dutch traders bought tea leaves from southern China and sold them around Europe. They called the leaves “thee” based on the Chinese word for it, and in English, it became known as “tea.”

2. Ketchup (n.)

The word “ketchup” most likely also comes from a language spoken in southern China. “Tchup” is the word for “juice” or “sauce” in a few languages there.

Interestingly, “ke” doesn’t mean “tomato.” It most likely meant “salted or pickled fish.” This is because ketchup was not commonly made from tomatoes until the 1800s. 

You can learn more about the history of ketchup in this Daily News article: “Ketchup: America’s Condiment has an Asian Connection.”

3. Gung-ho (adj.)

If you’re “gung-ho” about something, you are very interested or excited about it. The word is also sometimes used to describe things that seem aggressive or are related to fighting, weapons, or war.

Bill is so gung-ho about watching the World Cup, he even bought a new TV for it.
Bill is extremely interested in or excited about the World Cup.
I asked my wife if she’d be OK moving to Brazil, but she didn’t seem very gung-ho about it.
My wife doesn’t seem interested or excited about moving to Brazil.

Gung-ho comes from Chinese but has a different meaning from the original phrase: “industrial cooperative.” 

  • In the 1900s, many industrial cooperatives were founded in China. These were groups of people who worked together to make things in factories to support the war that was happening at the time.
  • During the Second World War, an officer in the U.S. military started using this phrase as a slogan for his soldiers. In this context, it meant “work in harmony!” His unit was known for working well together and not just taking orders from above.

We don’t use “gung-ho” to mean “work together” in English anymore. However, this phrase still has an energetic feeling, probably because it was first used to talk about people working together to help their country win a war.

4. Brainwash (v.)

Like gung-ho, “brainwash” entered the English language during a war – this time, the Korean War.

“Brainwash” is a direct translation of the Mandarin Chinese word “xi-nao” (“washing brain”). During the Korean War, Americans commonly believed that China captured US soldiers and then tried to brainwash them.

Later research found that there is not much proof supporting this belief, but the term stuck.

5. Kowtow (v.)

The word “kowtow” in Chinese literally means “knock your head (on the ground).” Traditionally, people would kneel on the ground and touch it with their forehead. They would do this when they wanted to show a lot of respect to someone, such as when worshiping the gods or addressing the emperor.

You can get an idea of it from the following video:

In English, "kowtow" has a negative meaning. English speakers say that someone is “kowtowing” when they think that person is trying too hard to please someone, are too obedient, or are giving in to unreasonable demands.

The president is kowtowing to big businesses.
The president is doing something to please big businesses, not the people they represent.

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