In "Why so little Chinese in English?", Robert Lane Greene ponders the paucity of recent Chinese loanwords in English, and there is a further discussion on Language Hat. English loves to borrow far and wide, yet it is strange how few words of Chinese origin there are in English. This is particularly odd for recent times, when there has been so much contact between Chinese and English speakers, and there have even been campaigns on the part of Chinese officials, journalists, and netizens to promote particular expressions for adoption into English.
One such campaign that sticks in my mind was undertaken on behalf of "ungelivable" or "ungeliable", an invented English term for the Chinese expression bù gěilì 不给力 (lit., "doesn't give force / energy"), which was supposedly untranslatable into existing English terminology. We might consider "unhelpful" (from Rebecca Fu) as a possible English rendering. Cheng Fangyi offers "not good enough" and "not as good as expected". Stephan Stiller lists the following translational equivalents:
disphatic (< emphatic)
energevating (< to enervate)
enervigorative (< to enervate)
Other such terms were "niubility" for niúbī 牛逼 ("awesome" < "cow cunt") and "smilence" for xiàoérbùyǔ 笑而不语 ("smile silently; smile without saying anything").
Although they all failed miserably, these efforts to inject Chinese words into English seem to have reached a peak in late 2010. It is curious that this is around the same time when energetic attempts to keep new English terms out of Chinese were raging. For a summary account of the situation, with many references, see "English Banned in Chinese Writing", although this is a topic that we have often touched upon here at Language Log.
Despite all the agitation for Chinese words to enter English and against English words to enter Chinese, English words kept pouring into Chinese, while Chinese words have made little headway in entering the English vocabulary.
Apart from guānxì 关系 ("connection; relationship"), mentioned by Robert Lane Greene, it is hard to point to any recent (post-Deng Xiaoping) term from Chinese that has found its way into English, and even guānxì is basically known only to China hands, who constitute a very small proportion of the population. (See, for example, Jin GUAN, "Guanxi: The Key to Achieving Success in China," Sino-Platonic Papers, 217 [December, 2011], 1-10.) It is noteworthy that, from the pre-Deng PRC period, the few expressions deriving from Chinese that stuck in the English vocabulary were for the most past politically charged: "paper tiger", "brainwashing", and "one child policy" — not technological, scientific, medical, artistic, philosophical, intellectual, cultural, and so forth.
Conversely, the number of English words, especially "letter words" (e.g., WTO, NATO), that are known to a broad spectrum of modern Chinese speakers is impressively large (e.g., "laser" > léishè 鐳射 [lit., "radium ray", Taiwan]; jīguāng 激光 [lit., "excited light", China], "clone" > kèlóng 克隆 [lit., "overcome / subdue grand / prosperous"], "cool" > kù 酷 [lit., "cruel"], "e-mail" > yīmèier 伊妹儿 [lit., "that little younger sister"] — the list is almost endless; most of the items are phonetic transcriptions, but often with a humorous touch or a hint of appropriate meaning.
This (the abundance of recent English loans in Chinese and the scarcity of Chinese loans in English) is a conundrum that I've been gnawing on for quite a while now.
What is most perplexing of all is that the number of words of Chinese origin that entered the English lexicon before 1950, while relatively few in comparison, say, with words from South Asian or European languages, is fairly substantial.
Starting from the late 19th century, the number of words of English and other European language origin that entered Chinese was enormous. Here are a few typical examples: tǎnkè 坦克 ("tank"), shāfā 沙发 ("sofa"), bālěiwǔ 芭蕾舞 ("ballet", from French), kǎchē 卡车 ("truck"), jípǔchē 吉普车 ("jeep"), kǎpiàn 卡片 ("card"), etc.
A similar phenomenon occurred during the 3rd through 9th centuries when tens of thousands of names and terms of Sanskrit origin flooded into Chinese, while only a tiny handful of words of Chinese origin made their way into South Asian languages during the same period. The great Song period encyclopedist, Zheng Qiao, who was particularly learned in phonetics and philology, indicated that he attributed the disparity to the different natures of the Chinese and Indian scripts. See Victor H. Mair, "Cheng Ch'iao's Understanding of Sanskrit: The Concept of Spelling in China," A Festschrift in Honour of Professor Jao Tsung-i on the Occasion of His Seventh-Fifth Anniversary, edited by the Editorial Board of A Festschrift in Honour of Professor Jao Tsung-i on the Occasion of His Seventh-Fifth Anniversary (Shatin, New Territories, Hong Kong: The Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993), pp. 331-341.