Where does your ketchup come from? 8 English words borrowed from Chinese

Posted in: foreign languages, intercultural competence

To celebrate the UN’s Chinese Language Day on 20 April, let's take a look at some words you may not realise have been borrowed from Chinese.

Without a doubt, English has become a truly global language. Close to 18% of the world population speak it either as a first language (more than 370 million) or a second language (more than 1 billion) (Ethnologue, 2022).

The success of the English language owes partly to its openness to foreign influences. Over the past 1,500 years, English has adopted words from more than 300 other languages (Philip Durkin, 2014).

Lehnwort and calquer: A word on loanwords

Words with foreign origins are known as borrowed words or loanwords.

English has borrowed from other Germanic languages; for example, the word loanword itself is from the German word Lehnwort. Another rich source of borrowing for English is Latin and its descendants such as French; for example, the type of borrowing shown by the word loanword is known as calque, meaning ‘loan translation’, from the French word calquer, which means ‘to copy’ or ‘to trace’. Calque itself is an example of borrowing known as phonetic adaption.

Chinese-origin words in English

While China’s neighbouring countries (notably Japan and Korea) have borrowed heavily from the Chinese language, in particular its writing system, relatively few words and expressions have been adopted into English.

Those that do, like many other borrowed words, have become such an integral part of the English language that few would stop and consider their origins.

Here are 8 English words which you may not realise are originally Chinese:

  1. Cha or Tea: Where would the British be without their tea?! Their favourite hot drink was first cultivated in China around 1600 B.C. In the 1500s, 茶(chá) was enjoyed by Portuguese missionaries in China and soon this drink became known in many countries as Cha. The word tea is actually from Dutch. The Dutch first encountered tea in the early 1600s around the modern-day Fujian province, where 闽南(mǐnnán) or Hokkien was the major language. Following the pronunciation of the local people, the Dutch called the drink ‘thee’. It is thought that the Dutch traders brought this highly valued drink to London in 1657.
  2. Ketchup: The word for the tomato sauce you love to put on your chips is likely to have derived from another 闽南(mǐnnán) word 膎汁(xié zhī), meaning a fish sauce. In 闽南(mǐnnán) this sauce is pronounced ke-tsiap. Do you know that in Dutch they call a thick soy sauce ketjap?
  3. Gung-ho: What are you gung-ho about at the moment? Learning languages, I hope! This word first entered American English in the 1940s. Its meaning, ‘overly enthusiastic’, however, has no resemblance to the recognised meaning in the original Chinese: 工合(gōnghé), short for 中国工业合作社(Zhōngguó gōngyè hézuò shè) (Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society), was created in late 1937 to support the resistance efforts against Japan’s full-scale invasion of China.
  4. Pidgin: Meaning a simplified form of a language, pidgin is used for communication between people who don’t share a common language. From the early 1900s, Europeans became dominant in China as tradesmen and colonisers. The Chinese people had to quickly learn to interact with English speakers and they adopted and modified the English language in their own way. Notably, the word business was adapted in such a way that it sounded like pidgin by the end of the 20th century.
  5. Long time no see: This common greeting from the Chinese expression 好久不见(hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn) is thought to have been brought back to the UK by members of the British Navy who picked it up through the pidgin English used by the Chinese people they met.
  6. Typhoon: The word for a tropical storm in the region of the Indian or western Pacific oceans, 台风(táifēng), literally means ‘the wind that comes from 台湾(Táiwān)’.
  7. Paper tiger: 纸老虎(zhǐ lǎohǔ), meaning a person or thing that appears threatening but is ineffectual, is often attributed to Mao Zedong. Mao’s reputation has certainly helped to make this expression known in the English-speaking world, but the expression itself can be traced back to an early Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) novel, 水浒传(Shuǐ hǔ zhuàn) (Water Margin, or Outlaws of the Marsh).
  8. Kowtow: Have you ever kowtowed to anyone? 叩头(kòu tóu) is the act of kneeling and touching one's head to the ground as a salute or act of worship to a revered authority. It is a traditional China ritual, and foreign trade and diplomatic representatives were once required to kowtow before the emperor to establish relations. These days, kowtow can still be observed at funerals, weddings or temples in China. The word kowtow came into English in the early 19th century, and its meaning shifted to describe any abject submission.

Time to reflect

Some questions you might like to think about:

  • Which of the eight words and phrases listed here are calques?
  • Which are phonetic adaptions?
  • Do you know of any other English words or expressions that are from Chinese?
  • Have you heard of shanghaiing or shanghaied? Do you think they are examples of borrowing?
  • Have you heard of 'transliteration'? Do you think it’s a form of borrowing?
  • What do the origins of these loanwords tell you about Chinese history and culture?

Feel free to post your thoughts or ask any questions in the comments!


  • Philip Durkin (2014) Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English.
  • Östen Dahl (2013) Tea. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.)
    The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/138, Accessed on 2022-04-11.)

Posted in: foreign languages, intercultural competence

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