This is a pop quiz — what common English words are borrowed from Chinese? The answer may surprise you.
How about kowtow, gung ho, and ketchup? Or typhoon. Or “long time no see.”
Even though English is a language that compulsively borrows from other languages, we don’t have too many borrowed from English.
A post on the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog last week delved into the question of why not:
“Linguists note that the heyday for linguistic absorption from China occurred before 1950, as can be seen in the spellings of certain loaner words—kowtow, gung ho, ketchup—many derived from non-Mandarin Chinese languages such as Cantonese.
Though there are other Chinese terms that are well-known in English, such as bok choy or chow mien, as the Economist’s Johnson language blog has pointed out, ‘[English-speaking countries] borrowed the foods, and their Chinese names merely hitched a ride into English.’ The same could be true of another—by now—commonly known Chinese term, feng shui.”
The post then asked its readers to identify Chinese words that could (or should) be imported by English. Below are my top five suggestions:
1. Ding (订). This is a great word that means to reserve or book or settle something. It can be used in multiple contexts — buying tickets, reserving a table at a restaurant, or arranging a time to meet a friend. It’s one of those words that foreigners in China sprinkle into their English discourse. “Did you ding a table?” “Did you ding the ticket?” And then there’s the great phrase, “jiu zhenme ding le.” (It’s settled, then!)
2. mafan (麻烦). This is another catch-all word that means hassle, annoyance, or all-around pain in the neck. Anything that fits into those categories can be described as mafan. It can also take on political overtones — people don’t want to “have mafan” from the government, that is get into trouble with the authorities.
3. mashang (马上). This means immediately, or presently, conveying the idea that something is about to happen. It literally means “on the horse.”
4. couhe (凑合). This word means to “make do.” When things can’t be perfect, then you just couhe couhe. When you don’t have all the exact ingredients or materials, you improvise — couhe. When you have to change your plans at the last minute, you couhe couhe.
5. bu wenming (不文明). The most common translation of this term is civilized or uncivilized. To suggest that someone is bu wenming is to suggest that he or she is rude, or uncouth — without manners.
So, dear Chinese speaking readers….leave a comment and tell me which Chinese words would YOU like to see make their way into English.