English Words Borrowed from Chinese

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.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

22 thoughts on “English Words Borrowed from Chinese

  1. With just 8 months of Chinese language learning, I don’t have a lot to offer here.

    But I have caught myself using “shenme, shenme, shenme” when I speak English when I don’t know, or would prefer not to say more. Kind of like “dot, dot, dot” gets used.

  2. I’d like to see guanxi have a stronger position in English, since it means so much more than its English counterparts.

  3. Definitely “mafan.” My parents even use it now! 🙂

    Next would be “jiaozi,” and at the same time disassociating the English word “dumpling” with this delicious Chinese food. A dumpling is NOT the same thing as a jiaozi!

    • Yes! Please stop using “dumpling” for jiaozi. I try to tell my Chinese friends that English has easily incorporated other popular food names like pizza, ravioli, casserole, etc. so for one of the absolutely most ubiquitous Chinese foods, it should be no problem as well.

  4. As vulgar as it is, I kind of like the term “bare branch” to refer to bachelors =)
    Also, I heard that “brainwash” came from Chinese. Do you know if this is true?

  5. Hey Jo,

    Cool post! Of course they all are. I think in your first suggestion (顶), you probably meant “订”. “顶” means the top, or crown, like the crown of the head, or the summit of a mountain. I think “订” carries the meaning you were looking for. I hope this isn’t 不文明! 🙂

    My suggestion would be 没关系 (méiguānxi). It means “It doesn’t matter.”, “No problem”, or “Think nothing of it.”

    Keep up the good work!

    • Yikes! Thanks for catching that. Ah yes…mei guanxi! In Beijing, we more commonly say mei shi (said with a super strong R at the end). Thanks for calling Gracie this morning. That made her day!

  6. I think 随便 suibian is a notable word. We use it so often that it comes out no matter who we are talking to. We are very suibian about using Chinglish.

  7. I find myself using li hai 厉害 intermingled with my English because there is not a perfect English equivalent in many situations.

  8. There are so many words:
    有事 youshi(such a convenient vague explanation when you can’t make it to any event)
    有空 youkong(have free time)
    怎么办! zenmeban
    不舒服 bushufu (not feel comfortable:such a useful phrase for anything from an upset stomach to homesickness to nervousness before an exam)
    不好意思 buhaoyisi (embarrassed doesn’t describe this word accurately enough. It’s so useful! Can mean ‘this moment is awkward for me and probably you too’)

  9. I used to think “typhoon” was from Chinese too, the similarity to 台风 seemed too great to be coincidence, esp. as we only use the term for Pacific storms. But I believe the English actually comes from the Greek τυφώνας, so perhaps the Chinese is a loan from English or another European language.

    I believe “long time no see” is a calque from 好久没见 and I would like to see English adopt other such 成语 (four character idioms), it would make English more efficient esp. for texting, etc. How about “no see no split” (不见不散) to start with?

    • Ah yes, the beloved “tiger tiger horse horse” for so-so! Which begs the question….where did the phrase “so so” come from? Since Chinese often duplicates words for emphasis, maybe so-so is borrowed from Chinese as well. Anyone?

  10. 服务员 (fu2wu4yuan2) is pretty useful. In English, it feels so wrong to use the term “waiter,” “stewardess,” “cashier,” and even the multiplicity of all the terms we have for employees who are supposed to serve you gets confusing. Is she the hostess or a waitress? Oh, yeah, we’re not supposed to say “stewardess” anymore, but “flight attendant” somehow sounds even worse when I use it to call her over. But when I say, “Excuse me, sir,” every man turns around. That’s where 服务员 comes to the rescue. An all-inclusive term for the person who should serve me that I don’t feel weird using.