Reader Geoff Wade asks:
Might you and your band of linguist lads and lassies turn your erudition to the term 'chop-chop', which according to Wikipedia derives from Cantonese. I can think of no Cantonese term which would give rise to this term.
On this day of Thanksgiving (or Thanksgivvukah, if you prefer, which is said to happen only once every 5,000 years [actually, the next occurrence will be in 2070]), all that I really want to do is "chomp chomp". But I'll make a start before dinner, and then let others fill in the gaps.
First of all, it must be said that "chop chop" can means lots and lots of things, but here we're only interested in the "hurry" or "do it quickly" meaning. For that, we may begin with this Wikipedia article:
"Chop chop" is a phrase rooted in Cantonese. It spread through Chinese workers at sea. It was adopted by English seamen. "Chop chop" refers to "hurry, hurry" and means something should be done now, advance and without any delay. The word "chopsticks" likely originates from this root.
This term has its origins in the South China Sea, as a Pidgin English version of the Chinese term k'wâi-k'wâi (Chinese: 快快; pinyin: kuài kuài). The earliest known citation of chop-chop in print is from the English language newspaper that was printed in Canton in the early 19th century – The Canton Register, 13 May 1834: "We have also… 'chop-chop hurry'." The earliest recorded use outside of China is in the London Daily Chronicle on 4 July 1909: "In pidgin English ‘chop-chop’ means ‘make haste’."
Malay has cepat-cepat with precsiely the same meaning as chop-chop, and many of the precolonial ships to China were crewed with people who spoke Malay. Could this be the origin?
Where did chop-chop derive from and is chop-stick related?
I do worry about the supposed derivation from Mandarin kuàikuài 快快 ("quickly"), since, although the meaning matches perfectly, the sound is rather remote from English "chop-chop".
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that "chop chop" is from Chinese k'wa-k'wa, but there are problems with such a derivation. While the vowel is closer to that of "chop-chop", the distinctive final "-p" is absent. Moreover, it is hard to determine what sort of Chinese is intended by k'wa-k'wa.
The Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to connect "chop chop" with "chopsticks", which it says results from
sailors' partial translation of Chinese k'wai tse, variously given as "fast ones" or "nimble boys," first element from pidgin English chop, from Cantonese kap "urgent." Chopsticks, the two-fingered piano exercise, is first attested 1893, probably from the resemblance of the fingers to chopsticks.
This is confusing, inasmuch as the "k'wai" of "k'wai tse" does not sound like the "k'wa" of "k'wa-k'wa" (the source of which is uncertain in any case), and neither "k'wai" nor "k'wa" sounds like the "chop" of "chop-chop" and "chopsticks".
The Collins English Dictionary — Complete and Unabridged states that "chop chop" is "related to Cantonese kap kap". This is an improvement, but still not specific and full enough to be convincing.
As I spelled out in a Language Log post written about a year ago, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed. is good for many reasons, but it is especially good when it comes to anything having to do with Chinese languages.
The AHD etymological explanations for "chop-chop" and "chopsticks" are succinct and accurate, and — so far as they go — they make sense when compared to each other.
Here's the entry for "chop-chop":
Reduplication of Chinese Pidgin English chop, quick, of Chinese dialectal [i.e., topolectal] origin; akin to Cantonese gap1 and Mandarin ji, hasty, urgent, pressing both < Middle Chinese kip.
And here's the AHD etymological note for "chopstick":
Chinese Pidgin English chop, quick: see CHOP-CHOP + STICK (on the model of Mandarin kuàizi, chopstick: kuài, chopstick (< kuài, quick, taboo replacement of earlier zhù, chopstick, used by boatmen to avoid saying the homynym zhù, to stop) + -zi, n. suffix….).
Note that the kuài of kuàizi 筷子 ("chopstick") is identical with the kuài of kuàikuài 快快 ("quickly"), except that the former has a bamboo radical added at the top, to indicate the material from which the utensil is made. This is a fairly late character.
For fuller annotations, we may turn to the entry on "chopsticks" in Wiktionary:
The Old Chinese words for "chopsticks" were 箸/筯/櫡 (zhù, OC *das), 梜 (jiā, OC *keːb) /挾提, which are still used in Min Nan (Taiwanese: tī, tɨ), Korean 젓가락 (jeotgarak) and Vietnamese đũa. Starting from the Ming Dynasty, the change to "筷子" occurred in Mandarin, Wu and some Cantonese dialects. The 15th century book "Shuyuan Miscellanies" (《菽園雜記》) said of the change: "As the mariners feared 住 (zhù, 'to stay') […], they call 箸 ('chopsticks') 快兒 ('quick')." The bamboo radical (竹) was later added to 快, to form 筷.
and the even more elaborate entry in Wikipedia (q.v.).
We may also consult the very learned article on the subject of chopsticks in Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and … by Sir Henry Yule, Arthur Coke Burnell (see p. 210ab). Although it is old (1886; enlgd. 1903), Hobson-Jobson is one of my favorite dictionaries, and it is still very valuable for anyone wanting to do in-depth research on the origins and early use of Asian words in English.
Ditto for Hobson-Jobson on "chop-chop" (for which see p. 209ab), where Walter William Skeat is quoted as comparing this expression with Malay chepat-chepat ("quick-quick"), which supports Geoff Wade's suggestion, although Hobson-Jobson also mentions the Cantonese gap1-gap1 derivation.
To adjudicate between the Malay and the Cantonese derivations of "chop-chop", we need to hear more from specialists on Malay and related languages and also on the history of sea trade between South China and Southeast Asia.
The word "chop" meaning "seal" is completely unrelated to the "chop" of "chop-chop" and "chopsticks". It comes from Hindi chāp. Likewise, the "chop" of "chop-chop" and "chopsticks" is completely unrelated to the "chop" of "chop suey", which comes from Cantonese zaap6 雜 ("mixed; miscellaneous; various").
Now it's time for turkey: chop-chop with my chopsticks.