Chinese loans in English

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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.


  1. Larry said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    Smilence hasn't caught on? What a pity.

  2. Irenaeus Saintonge said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

    Are there any non-Asian languages that do have a significant number of Chinese loanwords?

  3. Eli Driscoll said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 12:45 am

    'Starting from the late 19th century, the number of words of English and other European language origin that entered Chinese was enormous. '

    The Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't seem to agree that any of those words (tank, sofa, truck, ballet etc) are of Chinese origin.

  4. Chris Hunt said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:32 am

    So what does "niubility" mean? From your translation it's hardly surprising it's not caught on. Does English really need a word for bovine vaginal awsomeness?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:37 am

    From Brendan O'Kane:

    If i were translating and came across 给力, I'd be tempted to go with "schweet," another jocular and almost instantly annoying coinage. Or I might consider going with Pinyin and then explaining that it's "the opposite of a bummer" or something along those lines. Badly under-caffeinated at the moment; I'm sure something better will come to mind.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:38 am

    From Denis Mair:

    He "didn't come through" for us.
    He didn't make it happen. He didn't give his all.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:39 am

    From David Moser:

    To me 给力 and 不给力 have a hyper-slangy, hyper-trendy quality that deserves translations like "awesome, dude", "fan-friggin'-tastic", or, in my 60's days, "far out, man". This is without attempting to translate the slightly novel grammar. And yes, 不给力 might be "bummer, dude" or in the slang of a few years ago "wonderful — NOT!" Things like "epic fail" and "lame" come to mind also.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:49 am

    From Jeremy Goldkorn:

    It's also used to mean 'is not so good' or 'sucks' as in the phrase said to me recently 你这个车的空调不给力啊. [VHM: [Your car's air conditioning sucks."]

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:51 am

    David Moser commenting on Stephan Stiller's list:

    > All wonderful! But none have the same colloquial, slangy register as "bugeili".

    Stephan replies:

    The words "unawesome" and "un-kickass" are attested on the internet but they are obvious repeat ad-hoc formations as opposed to widespread, established words. (Urban Dictionary lists the former, but that really doesn't mean much. I'll write about Urban Dictionary at another occasion. Though, for that matter, the OED or Merriam-Webster containing a word doesn't always mean something either.)

    You could also try finding a word pair like "kick-ass"/"stay-ass" :-) but in this case the second component of course doesn't exist.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:53 am

    @Eli Driscoll:


    The Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't seem to agree that any of those words (tank, sofa, truck, ballet etc) are of Chinese origin.


    If you'll reread the quote you made from me, you'll realize that I was talking about loans going the other direction, from English and other European languages INTO Chinese.

  11. Jason said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 4:07 am

    Léishè for laser ("radium ray") in Taiwan — do we have a specific term for this, when a loanword preserves much of its original sound, but is calqued and reanalysed with native roots?

    An example that springs to mind is Tok Pisin "korap-pasin" for English "Corruption", which is much like how "corruption" would be pronounced by a speaker of Tok Pisin that has an epenthetic vowel between plosive and sibilant sounds. Here, the English word, which would normally be phonologically adapted as "korapsen", has instead been reanalysed as a combination of the (previously) meaningless morpheme "korap" and the (unrelated to the -tion ending) morpheme "pasin" (cognate with English "fashion") used in Tok Pisin to create abstract nouns. Hence

    pasin nogut = evil (bad-ness)
    pasin pait = bellicosity (fight-ness)
    pasin antap (or antap-pasin) = arrogance, haughtiness (above-ness)
    korap-pasin = corruption ("corrup-ness")

    Tok Pisin is stuffed with clever reanalysis like this. Disapointingly, "korap-pasin" seems to be giving way to Anglicised "korapsen."

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 4:41 am

    From Matt Smith:

    I think 'cool' (geili) and 'not cool' (bu geili) would work in some situations. Though probably not with Jeremy's A/C.

    The usage that Jeremy cites does seem sometimes to apply to a temporary problem. I don't know whether the car's A/C is generally crap, or whether it's just playing up. I've heard similar use of BU GEILI with trying to connect to the internet by mobile phone and failing, or somebody in authority not cooperating when you seek their assistance. In each of these cases it seems that the air conditioning could be crap, the phone or internet could be crap, and a person could just be an asshole in general, but sometimes it seems to me that the matter is about the person or machine simply not behaving as hoped/expected at the time in question.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 4:46 am

    From Kaiser Kuo:

    I would go with "rocks" for 给力 and "sucks" (after Jeremy) for 不给力.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 4:47 am

    From Brendan O'Kane:

    Matt's observation about 不给力 as a (sometimes) temporary state is a very good one – hadn't occurred to me, but it sounds about right. So maybe "is sucking" (as in "the internet is sucking today") would cover that?

  15. Mark P said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 7:17 am

    The list of Chinese words commonly used in English seems skewed towards food and food-related items. Given the number of Chinese restaurants in virtually every town in the US, that seems to lead to some kind of conclusion about how foreign words become loan words. Those words became familiar English words because they filled an immediate need that English had no good way to fill.

  16. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 7:31 am

    Can phrases such as "long time no see" and "no can do" actually be considered loan words?

  17. Stephan Stiller said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 7:42 am

    1. About "ungeli(v)able": I think the logic seen on China Daily (also (almost identically): Baidu Baike)



    is broken. The prefix-suffix combination "un-X-able" normally corresponds to 不可- and sometimes 无可-. There is absolutely no element of possibility ("can", "-able") within the Chinese expression 不给力's semantics.

    2. For my list of portmanteau translations, "dys-" is a suitable alternative to "dis-", with a different nuance in meaning.

    3. Some of the words in my list toy with the literary verbal predicate 不给/bùjǐ ("to be insufficient").

    4. The English word "lame" (similar (in its colloquial meaning) to 不给力) – if one looks at the semantics of its literal meaning – has overlap with 不–给–力 – or 不可 for that matter. Of course morphology doesn't play a role in English here.

  18. Mark P said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 8:21 am

    Am I wrong in thinking that the loan word needs to be the actual Chinese word rather than a translation?

  19. Matt said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    I'm curious about Irenaeus Saintonge's question. For example, given that every so often someone publishes a think piece on the topic "Hey, Chinese investors and corporations are really active in Africa these days," are Chinese loanwords starting to appear in the languages spoken in those areas?

  20. Tracy W said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 9:59 am

    When would you use "ungelivable"? English already has "flat" as in a flat battery, unviable, for biology, unforceful, and as you say, unhelpful.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    We need some sort of baseline for comparison. I actually wonder how many foreign-origin loanwords have become current in English over the last 35 years (i.e., approximating the rise of Deng Xiaopeng and the emergence of the PRC from seclusion). How many now-common words of French/German/Finnish/Basque/you-name-it origin have been borrowed that recently? (I'm sure one can find examples, but how would their quantity compare to loanwords acquired in some earlier timeframe?) Perhaps paradoxically the rise of English to world dominance has changed the way it interacts with other languages and reduced its historical tendency to accumulate loanwords from diverse sources?

    Take another obvious question – the Spanish-speaking population of the U.S. has dramatically increased over the same range of decades, and is also now found over a much wider geographical range than was historically the case. But how many new-since-1980 Spanish loanwords have become widely used by non-Hispanic AmEng speakers? Other than e.g. terms for food items and the like, the only one I can immediately think of in my own idiolect is "bodega" as the standard NYC word for corner-store/deli etc. (largely regardless of ethnicity of ownership or clientele), and I frankly don't know how far back that was current in NYC English before my own arrival in the early '90's.

  22. bfwebster said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    Obviously, we have to wait for a sufficiently disruptive civilization/world-level event, as demonstrated in Firefly/Serenity. :-)

  23. bfwebster said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    (For those who are wondering what I'm talking about:

  24. Uri said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    I agree with J.W. Brewer: is Chinese that unusual in not providing many recent loanwords into English? How many recent loans have come from Hindi/Urdu or even French or German for that matter? Japanese and Spanish do appear to have been fairly productive over the last 30 years, but are those the exceptions rather than the rule?

    Some thoughts: food, sports and politics cover a large proportion of foreign loanwords, but China's food and martial arts were imported a long time ago, and its current, less ideological political system might produce fewer coinages than the pre-Deng era did. Technological loanwords still seem restricted very few countries (karaoke, walkman, tamagotchi, etc from Japanese, but I can't immediately think of any others). Cultural loanwords (paparazzi, film noir) typically depend on enough cultural similarities for the loanword to be useful in the importing language, which may favour European loans.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    How could I forget that I wrote this just a little over a year ago?


  26. Izfal said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

    Because Modern Chinese culture has not been influential, even the ex-Sinophile East Asian languages like Japanese or Korean have borrowed only few words from (20th century) Modern Chinese, and those loanwords are generally related to Modern Chinese society.

  27. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: Oh, I can think of not only individual words but entire Spanish phrases which have entred the informal/slang lexicon of American English: adiós, amigo, cabrón, carnal, colitas, cojones, federales, güero, hasta la vista, la Migra, mi casa es su casa, mojado, pendejo, ¿qué pasa?, etc.

    As you can see, a number of these relate to the field of immigration. Another relatively rich field is music: banda, narcocorrido, ranchero, salsa, tejano, etc.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

    COCA has no instances of "colitas" (or "colita") but plenty of "cojones." I'm not sure very many non-Hispanic AmEng speakers know "colitas" outside the fixed phrase "warm small of . . ." and most of those would have difficulty explaining what it means in that context unless they've spent time following internet discussions of just that exegetical difficulty.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

    It's going to vary by entry, but lots of other entries on Daniel von B.'s list turn up on google n gram well before the dramatic expansion of the Hispanic population of the U.S. over the last, say, four decades.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

    But going back to recent Chinese-origin loans, COCA has a whole lot more feng shui than it does cojones. (Google books has references to feng shui well back into the 19th century, but the ngram viewer shows a very big uptrend in frequency of usage starting around 1980.)

  31. Elizabeth Pyatt said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

    As others have pointed out, this is not unique to Chinese. There are relatively few Thai loans (other than thing like "pad thai'), Vietnamese or Tagalog loans in standard American English despite the fact there has been a lot of emigration and contact. An exception is Japanese which has given us terms like "manga", "emoji" and "anime."

    It's likely that English is so culturally dominant that speakers haven't felt a need to adopt new customs/cultural items. Spanish and French did not borrow much from English until the late 20th century even though they have been in contact for many centuries. Before then English (and the Welsh/Bretons) borrowed much more from the French who were considered technologically & culturally superior.

    I also think the relative isolation of the cultures is a factor. There hasn't been much contact between the two populations until pretty recently.
    The Chinese situation is complicated in that English had already borrowed from languages like Cantonese. Why adopt another word for "lo mein" if it's not necessary. Maybe exposure to modern Beijing culture will change the situation in time.

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

    With apology for series of small posts instead of one better-integrated one, COCA also has a lot more hits for "feng shui" than for the RLG/VM nominee "guanxi," and it wouldn't surprise me if looking at the hits for the former in more detail would show a wider distribution of users than the more China-hand-specific guanxi. The pre-Deng occurrences of "feng shui" are sufficiently scarce that I think it would be fair to say it hand't really been lexicalized into AmEng yet outside of specialized circles.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

    From Jing Wen:

    "to no avail" or "without avail"?

  34. Dave Cragin said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

    One “letter” word that seems dominant in China, at least in regards to every friend I’ve asked there, is the term for Chinese-Americans, i.e, ABC (American-Born Chinese). I first assumed they were saying ABC to be clear to me, but they said they use it with other Chinese.

    They explained the old term for Chinese-American was 美籍华人(meiji huaren). However, meiji huaren means Chinese who are American citizens.

    Now that there are many Chinese who have become naturalized American citizens, a word was needed to differentiate them from American-born Chinese, so ABC is used. (Meiji huaren can still be used to refer to Chinese Americans, it's just not precise).

    It seems like ABC is far more common in China than the US.

  35. maidhc said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

    I was listening to the radio a couple of days ago and they mentioned a word for second generation wealthy kids. Something like fer dai? I was driving so I wasn't able to write it down. Anyway it would seem like a useful phrase.

    People use Japanese words like nisei in English so why not Chinese words if they fill a useful function?

  36. John Rohsenow said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 1:26 am

    Elizabeth Wichmann, an expert on Chinese drama at Univ Hawaii, dislikes
    the term "Beijing/Peking OPERA", b/c she feels that that staged art includes much more than Western OPERA. She asks, reasonably I think,
    WHY we can't just say JINGJU, given that we quite comfortably say
    Kabuki, Noh, etc. in English.

  37. Guy said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 2:17 am

    As a few posters above have noted, this has more to do with the dominance of English than anything else.

    English might have a reputation as a "sponge" language but I wonder how many foreign words it has actually absorbed in recent decades? It has become the world's pre-eminent source language and receives little in return.

    In contrast, languages such as German, French, Japanese and Italian have adopted hundreds, if not thousands of English words in modern times. Pick up any sort of glossy magazine in Europe or Asia and the cover will be liberally sprinkled with English words.

  38. Peter Taylor said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 2:28 am

    @Daniel von Brighoff, maybe I'm missing some Mexican connotations, but I don't understand what you mean by "As you can see, a number of these relate to the field of immigration". La Migra is the only word which obviously fits that category; I can see that mojado could fit (if it here has a similar meaning to wetback), although in Spanish it just means wet or dampened; but the others just seem to be generic greetings, insults, etc.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 5:25 am

    "China hints Japan is courting 'strategic hostility' over islands", Christian Science Monitor- July.11, 2013‎‎‎:


    "Relations between Beijing and Tokyo, long weighted down by bitter … To Chinese eyes, Japan's refusal to acknowledge China's claim to the …."


    VHM: The concept of "strategic hostility" is most intriguing, and scary. I wonder what the term is in Chinese. Whatever it is, this is a novel concept, and may be the latest importation of a Chinese concept in English, like "paper tiger", "running dog", "brainwashing", "fengshui", "guanxi", "ungeli(v)able" [fail!] and so forth.

    I don't think I've ever heard of this concept before, at least not as a fixed term, but now it is all over the internet, and all of the flood of occurrences come from the recent Chinese government warning to Japan.

    What is even more intriguing (and rather troubling) is the Chinese assertion that Japan is "courting strategic hostility" by not accepting the PRC claim to the disputed islands. That makes it sound as though the "strategic hostility" is going to come from the Chinese side. Worrisome.

    It is very difficult to penetrate the psychology of this kind of bluster. The real problem is that the dividing line between bluster and bellicosity is a very fine one indeed, and bellicosity can very easily lead to actual military hostility.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 6:10 am

    There's no way you can consider "feng shui" (variants "feng-shui" and "fengshui") a RECENT (post-Dengian, or even post-PRC) loan. It's been in English since 1797 (!), and I was familiar with it six decades ago, long before I ever got into Chinese studies.

  41. John Walden said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    I agree with previous posters that the golden years days of borrowing, at least out of necessity, may be over. When the Angles, Saxons and so on arrived on Britain they found an island whose fauna, flora and technology were mostly similar to theirs: the Romanised Celts didn't have much, or even anything, that they (The AS etc) didn't already have and so would need a word for.

    Unlike, say, when the Spanish arrived in The New World and borrowed a good number of words for things they hadn't seen before.

    That's just not happening any more. We may have to wait till a Close Encounter for more stuff we need words for. Which is not to say that we won't adopt words for other reasons.

  42. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    In order to establish when a loanword was "borrowed" and thus became an English word, you need a general theory of the English lexicon. Dating the first appearance of the word in an otherwise English text isn't sufficient evidence of that having happened, although one can obviously debate how much more evidence of what sort of use in what sort of context one needs to conclude that the formerly-foreign word has been successfully lexicalized.

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 11:55 am

    E.g. from a not-very-highbrow novel by Frank Norris published 1899 that would presumably fall short of modern standards regarding intercultural sensitivity:

    Moran went forward and kicked them to their feet and hurled their joss-sticks into the sea. " Feng-shui ! Feng-shui ! " they exclaimed with bated breaths. "The Feng-shui no likee we." Low in the east the horizon began to blacken against the sky.

    It is clear from the next page that the Anglophone characters in the scene (and, one presumes, the novel's anticipated readers) haven't the foggiest idea what "feng-shui" means.

  44. Jim said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

    "As others have pointed out, this is not unique to Chinese. There are relatively few Thai loans (other than thing like "pad thai'), Vietnamese or Tagalog loans in standard American English despite the fact there has been a lot of emigration and contact. An exception is Japanese which has given us terms like "manga", "emoji" and "anime."

    Elizabeth, that's true for English at large as a language community, but for Thai, Chinese, Korean and Japanese the influence on military slang is much greater and not restricted to food items, although there are soem obvious semantic domains where this kind of borrowing is going to concentrate.

    Thai: 'nit noy' neglible, trivial; 'katoy' transvestite.

    Japanese: 'mamasan' female pimp; 'binjo' latrine; 'honcho' temporary boss

    Chinese; 'gung ho'

    Korean: 'yobo' in-country girlfriend; the "no sweaty-da" construction ("easy da etc.)

    Tagalog: 'boondocks' back country

    And of course this parallels the borrowings from German: 'los' as a noun eg "What's the los on that?"; humorous calques such as 'aufgefucked'. A lot of these are falling out of use just as a generational matter. Probably no one talks about a "forest meister' anymore.

  45. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    Borrowings of foreign words are often subject to distortion, adaptation, modification, and misunderstanding. This is one of the things that make them especially interesting and sometimes also humorous.

    A good example is "gungho" (in English since 1942), which in English means "extremely enthusiastic and dedicated", but in Mandarin, whence it comes, it was an abbreviation for "Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society".

    A word may be borrowed into some other language, develop a new meaning in that language, and then get borrowed back into the original language with a completely new meaning. This is the phenomenon that I have called "round-trip words", and I have documented it extensively for Chinese > Japanese > Chinese in Sino-Platonic Papers, no. 34 (October, 1992). An English > Russian > English example is "brigade", which — when borrowed into Russian — developed a new meaning there, viz., "a working collective" (бригада). Subsequently, this new meaning was borrowed back into English. A similar round-trip borrowing occurred with "pioneer".

    Mistaken use of borrowings from English is widespread in Konglish and in Wasei-eigo.

  46. Colin Fine said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 4:13 am

    Jason: I would call this "folk etymology", and give the English example of "sparrow grass", a dialectal form of "asparagus".

  47. Jaca Pichu said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    "Chifa" may be the only word of Chinese etymology in any language outside the sinosphere and its immediate surroundings that I know of, if we exclude words like feng shui that don't seem to be restricted to a region or a small number of host languages.

  48. Mark F. said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

    VM writes "English loves to borrow far and wide," which is the received wisdom, but is it really true? Or, rather, is it really true any more? The huge influx of Norman French was a singular event that might have happened to any language under the same circumstances. And there was definitely a period when derivation from Latin and Greek was the preferred way of generating new technical vocabulary. But over the past half-century other languages seem much more prone to borrow from English than vice versa, and in general the rate of borrowing from any source doesn't seem that high.

  49. Karen said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    As already noted the food borrowings are a little shallow, but I think as grocery stores stock a wider variety of vegetables we get new borrowings. Gai lan is a pretty normal word in English these days, as well as the various kinds of choy, but I certainly didn't know about them 15 years ago — I think you would have needed to go to a specialized store and now they are everywhere. (Incidentally some days it feels like all the tasty vegetables are brassica one way or another!).

  50. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 5:43 am


    "I was listening to the radio a couple of days ago and they mentioned a word for second generation wealthy kids. Something like fer dai?"

    They were probably talking about èr dài 二代 ("second generation").

  51. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 8:02 am

    From a German-American friend:

    Interesting subject.

    Before the advent of TV in Germany, the Berlin manner of speech was still heavily influenced by Napoleon's occupation in vocabulary, speed, as well as inflection. Of course we also still had the sixteen major dialects and all their shadings in between.

    The US occupation began saturating the language with English (often quite inappropriately) and the arrival of TV flattened all dialects and inflections. Now the newer generations all sound the same. Actually the same seems to hold true here. One hardly hears younger (than myself) Texans drawl or New Englanders paaking in capacs (a word that took some time to sink in while being given directions) or play caads, etc.

    What did happen, however, is that the latest generation has taken on a speed of speech that is well nigh hard to hear that fast. And have you noticed that women's voices don't seem to outgrow their cheerleader "chirpings"? I miss the cultured voices of people like Wm. F. Buckley, for instance. It seems language, both here as well as well as Germany, is getting quite sloppy.

    Also – when did it happen that young people only print and can't read cursive?

  52. Suburbanbanshee said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 8:57 am

    Having worked nearly a year in an inbound call center serving a major US company, I'm here to tell you that American dialects are still alive, well, and getting more differentiated all the time.

    Especially when people are calling customer service and are under stress.

  53. Michael Turk said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    The word ‘acupoint’ is not in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition on CD, while a Google search returns 743,000 results. The OED list its first reference publication for ‘acupuncturist’ as Acupuncture by F. Mann 1962. A Google book search finds older publications.

  54. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 3:00 am

    I wonder if a better approach would be to look at some of the processes through which loan words enter another language and see which of these were or were not present in the Chinese case.

    I can see several routes:

    * Large members of one population learning one prestige language (thus English into Chinese – this language has to be prestige – for instance, there are almost no new words from Russian in Czech since the war despite all Czechs learning Russian in school)
    * Linguistic elite borrows words during a linguistic or cultural revival period (how Russian got German and Czech got Russian borrowings)
    * Elite of one prestige group resides in a lower prestige country and mimic the speaking of the people they interact with (how Sanskrit words got into English)
    * Sustained contact (ideally trade) in which two equal prestige languages (or more or less independent) interact and where words get passed on as part of exchange of goods and social interactions (Spanish and English)
    * Technological transfer – name for a thing gets transferred with the thing

    By no means an exhaustive list but picking it apart might help explain some of the asymmetries here. The final frontier and very dangerous ground to tread would be to look at linguistic compatibility and linguistic culture. German is culturally less accepting of loans than Russian (obviously not the case with English). English people may find it more difficult to make sense of Chinese pronunciation, etc. Chinese speakers abroad may be less prone to lexical code switching – similarly to modern Greeks vs. Italians or the French.

  55. ohwilleke said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

    Not precisely on topic, but one of the artistic concepts of Josh Whedon's Firefly series was that it envisioned a world in which Mandarin was a dominant interstellar language with mass borrowing of Mandarin expressions by speakers of other languages – a concept that considerable linguistic effort was devoted to realizing authentically. It illustrates in its science fiction cowboy setting what a world where word borrowing was going in the other direction might look like.

  56. flubber said,

    July 17, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    The Japanese word umami has gained some purchase.

  57. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 7:52 am

    From Bill Benzon:

    "English words with Chinese characteristics"

  58. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    From Vladimir Menkov:

    Two months later, here's a strongly opinionated article by Thorsten
    Pattberg, arguing for *more* Chinese loanwords in English (and,
    presumably, in German too, although he does not explicitly say so):

    Dr. Pattberg argues, for example, that terms such as shengren 圣人 or junzi 君子 ought to be borrowed into English, and not translated (as e.g. "saint" or "gentleman").

    He claims that there is actually an opposition from the publishing establishment to the introduction of new loanwords into English journalism:

    "these days we are experiencing another: an unprecedented Anglo-Saxon bias against foreign terms: The New York Times, The Times, The Wall Street Journal, Science magazine — the greater part of the Western “mass muscle” — is coercing their authors to hold back on non-English words or eliminate them from their submissions."

  59. Inst said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

    An inquiry: from a casual investigation it's odd that the Chinese seem to have achieved something that the French still regard as a holy grail, that is to say, a vast amount of Chinese phonetic loan-words end up being replaced with their conceptual equivalents at some point in time. For example, see the transition between yintewang (phonetic combination of inter- and the Chinese for net) and hulianwang (a pure conceptual loan word).

    If such a phenomenon actually exists, what factors control its existence? And as an aside, would it be more common to work in the opposite direction, that is to say, that English would be more prone to conceptual loans from Chinese than phonetic loans?

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