Chop-chop and chopsticks

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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.[1] It was adopted by English seamen.[2] "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.[3]

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).[4] 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’."[5]

Geoff notes:

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 // (zhù, OC *das), (jiā, OC *keːb) /挾提, which are still used in Min Nan (Taiwanese: , ), 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 (zhù, 'to stay') […], they call ('chopsticks') 快兒 ('quick')."[1] The bamboo radical (竹) was later added to 快, to form .

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.


  1. Rubrick said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

    The phrase 'Ditto for Hobson-Jobson on "chop-chop"' is rather marvelous.

  2. Evan Hess said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

    Pure speculation, but why not?:

    Chop-chop from 眨, Cantonese zaap3, meaning "blink" or "wink", used in Mandarin expressions at least in the sense of "in the blink of an eye, quickly"

    Chop in chopstick from Cantonese 執 zap1, meaning "hold"

    These explanations seem at least as plausible, both phonologically and semantically, as any other. Since they're Pidgin expressions, there's no need for them to match exactly to usage by native speakers speaking among themselves – the general meaning would be clear enough.

  3. Bart said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

    You can duplicate adjectives for stress in Malay. So since 'cepat' means quick 'cepat-cepat' is a good way of saying, "get a move on'.
    On the other hand it isn't really a set expression. I mean it's no more common than a hundred other duplicated adjective pairs you might use to stress some quality: 'murah-murah' 'very cheap', 'enak-enak', 'very tasty' etc

  4. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 8:48 pm

    Since an earlier edition of my manual (HUP 2000) is quoted in the Wikipedia article on chopsticks I would like to add a few details that correct and enlarge on the cited points. These corrections appear in the section on chopsticks in my recent “Chinese History: A New Manual” (HUP, January 2013; 3rd revised printing, HUP, October 2013, pp. 459-460).

    The word kuai’er 快兒 or kuaizi 快子 only came into general use in both the spoken and written languages in the twentieth century. In the written language it begins to appear in the great eighteenth century vernacular novels, but less often than zhu 箸. By the end of the nineteenth century, kuaizi 快子appears in novels more frequently than zhu 箸. During the May Fourth period kuaizi 快子largely replaced zhu 箸 (the bamboo signific [zhu 竹] was added at the same time [to make 筷子])…One explanation for the original switch of name from zhu 箸 to kuai 快 is that there was a taboo among Wu boatmen on zhu because of the similarity of zhu 箸 with zhu 住 (stop).
    It was … from the Ming that the characteristic modern form of Chinese chopsticks, square at the head and round and tapered at the tip, became more common. The first reference in a foreign language to eating with “two sticks” is by Tomé Pires (1550). The word chopsticks first appears in English in 1699 in William Dampier’s observations of the customs of Tonquin made during his 1688 visit there (Dampier, Voyages and descriptions [vol. 2, part 1, 84–85]).

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 10:11 pm

    West African English-based pidgins all have "chop" for "eat" and "food." I always had a vague notion that chopsticks were thus basically eating-sticks, which certainly makes sense semantically but seems hard to square with the undoubted Chinese connection of the things themselves, and presumably of the word, therefore. As far as I know (not very far) there's no connection really between W African and Chinese pidgins apart form the obvious one of English itself.

  6. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

    On the other hand, the very fact that the implements themselves are quintessentially Chinese might have led people too readily to look for a Chinese etymology. And a fair bit of the various English-lexifier pidgins seems to be based on the argot of a very multiethnic population of British naval ratings and merchant seamen, so it's maybe not quite such a stretch.

    There are LL readers out there who are experts in these matters …

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 28, 2013 @ 11:02 pm

    From Sanping Chen:

    I do have a question regarding the fun story about chop-chop. If this
    was from Cantonese gap-gap, then the English word is a palatalized
    form. I wonder how often such immediate palatalization happens in
    direct borrowings between languages. I have been looking for these
    palatalized borrowings in medieval China in either directions for
    quite some time, and have not found any solid cases.

    Cantonese gap-gap is certainly a valid short form of the Taoist
    incantation 急急如律令, evolved from Han dynasty official formulas. If it
    is indeed the origin of chop-chop, then Hakka 客家话 gip-gip/kip-kip
    might be a more likely source.

  8. David Yonge-Mallo said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    I wonder if there wasn't some influence from Persian or a related language, where the word for stick is چوب (choob). Has that angle been explored?

  9. Bob said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

    the English master waiting for fire wood, or lunch, would say to the servant with limited English: chop chop…. Here, Chop was an English word. It happened in the British Colonial Hongkong, most likely….

  10. Bob said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    mash potato is how you make mash potato; chopstick is how you make chopstick……

  11. Alyssa said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

    Given the staccato way "chop chop!" is usually said, I'd think that as likely as not the final "-p" was added after it was borrowed into English – sort of like what happened with "yup" and "nope".

  12. Geoff Wade said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

    Readers might be interested in a newspaper extract from the Straits Times of 19 October 1878 provided here (second section) which provides two uses of the term 'chop' in China Coast pidgin:

    It is a short review of Herbert A Giles, "A glossary of reference [on subjects connected with the Far East] [Hong Kong : Lane Crawford, 1878] and it copies a citation from the book where
    Giles gives a pidgin translation of the first verse of Longfellow's Excelsior (1841), the original of which runs thus:

    The shades of night were falling fast,
    As through an Alpine village passed
    A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
    A banner with the strange device,

    Giles pidgin version runs:

    That nightey time begin chop-chop
    One young man walking– no can stop
    Maskee show! Maskee ice!
    He carry flag with chop so nice

  13. richard said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

    As for "chop-chop" coming from Malay, one problem I see is that the stress in "cepat" is on the second syllable, with the vowel typically elided–so the sound is more like "c'PAT-c'PAT" than (using modern spelling) "CAP't-CAP't." Also, the modern Malay/Indonesian word for "chopstick" uses the root "-pit" (penyepit, sumpit, sepit), which is basically "pinch" or "pincer," not "quick" at all.

  14. Geoff Wade said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    Another early reference to chop-chop seen in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of 10 November 1840, reprinted from the Philadelphia Gazette (no date given):

    "First Chop — We have often hear this word being made use of in this country — in short it is a specie of mercantile phrase, yet it applies to anything specially fine-but we could never get hold of its derivation. We presume now that it is of Chinese origin. A 'chop' in Chinese, on the authority of a gentleman recently from that quarter, means almost anything; sometimes a proclamation or a hand-bill, or a letter, or a law; and chop-chop means very fine or very strong, or first rate."

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

    If it will help, the OED's first citation for "chop-chop" is from 1834, but this glossary from 1795 translates it as "To make haste."

    Its first citation for "chop-sticks" is the one from Dampier given by Endymion Wilkinson, and I couldn't find anything earlier at Google Books.

    Given the remoteness of, say, "Hobson-Jobson" from "Ya Hasan! Ya Husayn!" I don't see any reason to doubt that gap, gip, or kip could have turned into pidgin "chop", an English word that means a quick movement.

    On another continent, the OED's first citation for West African "chop" meaning "food" is from 1805. The dictionary doesn't speculate on the etymology, but I wonder about "chop-house", a restaurant (originally one where chops were sold), dated to 1699—and I wonder whether that also influenced "chop-sticks", though not "chop chop". Likewise "chop" meaning "To take into the chops and eat; to snap up," with citations from 1581 to 1701.

  16. Y said,

    November 29, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    Jack Black was a hobo and petty criminal, who wrote a remarkable autobiography, You Can't Win, about his life around the turn of the 20th century. On page 166 he recounts a phrase from a resident of Chinatown in Vancouver, B.C., "You no 'luc zhe'; you good man. You come 'fi fi' (quickly)." luc zhe supposedly means 'policeman'. I have no idea what variety of Chinese this is.

    Elsewhere, on p. 173, we have "Suddenly he uttered a short, sharp exclamation, that sounded like 'Chut.'" (at which his captors swing a meat cleaver at him, to cut his ropes as it turns out.)

  17. John Swindle said,

    November 30, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

    @Y: Your first two Jack Black examples are Cantonese. "Luc zhe" is a reference to the police officer's blue (luc) coat. "Fi fi" (pronounced "fai fai") is the Cantonese equivalent of what we've already seen as kuài kuài (快快, 'hurry up!') in Mandarin. It doesn't, however, take us any closer to "chop-chop." I don't know about "Chut." Maybe he meant to say "Aw, shoots!"

  18. Katie Y. said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

    Indonesian (very similar to Malay) has "siap-siap" for "are you ready? Hurry up!" The sound is something like "shyap-shyap" or "chop-chop." I have often wondered if this could be the origin of "chop-chop," or at least be related.

  19. John S said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 8:43 am

    I doubt that the phrase chop-chop came from Mandarin,
    since the it has lost the short, "choppy" syllables of Cantonese
    (or related dialects) .

    I think Victor Mair's comments are on the right track.
    The word gap ( 急 ,pronounced "gupp" in Cantonese) has the meaning of in-a-hurry , or 'urgent'. I haven't heard 急 急
    ("gupp-gupp") reduplicated in Chinese speech , but that would not be surprising to do that in a pidgin borrowing.

    Chop-sticks is probably a back formation from American Chinese chop-suey ( 雜水 on your menu – pronounced 'japp soy' in Cantonese) .

    The "chop / 雜" in chop-suey means an mixture or assortment
    (of things) and doesn't (in Chinese) refer to either speed or the chopping of food. ( I think the mental connection of "chopstick" to the older (?) phrase 'chop-chop' came more from English than from Chinese .

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