Some Very 'American' Words Come from Chinese

20 February, 2018

On a recent program, we told you the stories of English words borrowed from other languages. Today, we will tell you about words that English has taken from Chinese.

Many of the Chinese words that are now part of English were borrowed long ago. They are most often from Cantonese or other Chinese languages rather than Mandarin.

Let's start with kowtow.


The English word kowtow is a verb that means to agree too easily to do what someone else wants you to do, or to obey someone with power in a way that seems weak.

It comes from the Cantonese word kau tau, which means "knock your head." It refers to the act of kneeling and lowering one's head as a sign of respect to superiors – such as emperors, elders and leaders. In the case of emperors, the act required the person to touch their head to the ground.

Britain's Lord George Macartney refused to
Britain's Lord George Macartney refused to "kau tau" to the Qianlong Emperor. Soon after, the English word "kowtow" was born.

In 1793, Britain's King George III sent Lord George Macartney and other trade ambassadors to China to negotiate a trade agreement. The Chinese asked them to kowtow to the Qianlong Emperor. As the story goes, Lord Macartney refused for his delegation to do more than bend their knees. He said that was all they were required to do for their own king.

It is not surprising, then, that Macartney left China without negotiating the trade agreement.

After that, critics used the word kowtow when anyone was too submissive to China. Today, the usage has no connection to China, nor any specific political connection.


Another borrowed word that came about through contact between two nations is gung-ho.

In English, the word gung-ho is an adjective that means extremely excited about doing something. The Chinese characters "gōng" and "hé" together mean "work together, cooperate."

The original term -- gōngyè hézuòshè -- means Chinese Industrial Cooperatives. The organizations were established in the 1930s by Westerners in China to promote industrial and economic development.

Lt. Colonel Evans Carlson of the United States Marine Corps observed these cooperatives while he was in China. He was impressed, saying "...all the soldiers dedicated themselves to one idea and worked together to put that idea over."

He then began using the term gung-ho in the Marine Corps to try to create the same spirit he had witnessed. In 1942, he used the word as a training slogan for the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion during World War II. The men were often called the "Gung Ho Battalion." From then, the word gung-ho spread as a slogan throughout the Marine Corps. Today, its meaning has no relation to the military.


In English, a typhoon is a very powerful and destructive storm that occurs around the China Sea and in the South Pacific.

The word history of typhoon had a far less direct path to the English language than gung-ho. And not all historical accounts are the same.

But, according to the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, the first typhoons reported in the English language were in India and were called "touffons" or "tufans."

The word tufan or al-tufan is Arabic and means violent storm or flood. The English came across this word in India and borrowed it as touffon.

Later, when English ships encountered violent storms in the China Sea, Englishmen learned the Cantonese word tai fung, which means "great wind." The word's similarity to touffon is only by chance.

The modern form of the word – typhoon – was influenced by the Cantonese but respelled to make it appear more Greek.


A kumquat is a fruit that looks like a small orange. It is native to South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

The word kumquat comes from the Cantonese word kam-kwat or gām-gwāt, meaning "golden orange." Gām means "golden" and gwāt means "citrus fruit" or "orange." The word also refers to the plant that carries this fruit.

In 1846, a collector for the London Horticultural Society introduced kumquats to Europe. Not long after, the fruit found its way to North America.


Another food-related word from Chinese is chow. The English word chow is slang for "food." American English speakers also use the phrasal verb "chow down," which can mean to eat something quickly and without good manners.

It comes from the Cantonese verb ch'ao, which means "to stir-fry" or "to cook."

The American English usage of the word chow as "food" dates back to 1856 in California. Chinese laborers built the railroads in that state. Back then, the word mainly referred to Chinese food. Today it refers to all kinds of food.


Most Americans would have a hard time believing that ketchup was not created right here in the U-S-A.

Ketchup is America's most popular condiment. But, as VOA Learning English reported last year, the story of ketchup began more than 500 years ago in Southeast Asia.

The word ketchup most likely comes from the word ke-tsiap, from a Chinese dialect called Amoy. The word originally referred to a type of sauce made from mixing pickled fish with spices.

And, historians say, the sauce was probably first created in a Chinese community in northern Vietnam. Later, this sauce would reach Indonesia and be called kecap.

The word first met the English language in the late 17th century, when a British colony in Indonesia came into contact with this sauce.

Back in England, the English first used the word to refer to many types of sauces.

Later, English settlers brought ketchup with them to the American colonies, but the condiment did not contain tomatoes until the mid-19th century.

Join us again soon to learn the history of English words borrowed from other languages.

I'm Pete Musto. And I'm Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

kneel – v. to be in a position in which both of your knees are on the floor

superior – n. a person of higher rank or status than another

submissive – adj. willing to obey someone else

original – adj. happening or existing first or at the beginning

promote – v. to help something happen, develop or increase

dedicate – v. to use time, money, energy or attention for something)

slogan – n. a word or phrase that is easy to remember and is used by a group or business to attract attention

horticultural – adj. related to the science of growing fruits, vegetables and flowers

pickled – adj. preserved with salt water or vinegar

condiment – n. something (such as salt, mustard, or ketchup) that is added to food to give it more flavor

sauce – n. a thick liquid that is eaten with or on food to add flavor to it