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Word Nerd: How Chinese flavours our language

Chinese civilization dates back at least 4,000 years and is the source of many of the world’s greatest inventions including paper, printing, and the compass, not to mention fine porcelain china.

However, if you were to ask people to name an English word that derives from Chinese, the responses would probably remind you of a Chinese restaurant take-out order and would likely include chow mein, chop suey, and won ton. The first word in this grouping to make it into the OED is chop suey, an adaptation of the Cantonese shap sui, “mixed bits”, which entered English usage in 1888. Actually, the “chop” in chopsticks, also has a Chinese origin, but here the meaning is “quick.” The word chopsticks is a corruption of k’wâi-tsze, “the quick and nimble ones.”

Missing from the above is perhaps the greatest gustatory Chinese delight. Whereas Arabic brought us intoxicating beverages such as alcohol and coffee, Chinese can take credit for the mildly inebriating libation, tea. British slang for a cup of tea is “cuppa char,” “char” being a corruption of cha, which derives from the Mandarin ch’a. This reflects the first OED rendering in 1598 with the spelling “chaa”; its first mention in Europe is as “cha” in Portugal in 1559. Under the name te, or thee, it was imported by the Dutch from Java, where it had been brought by Chinese merchants from the province of Amoy. It was introduced in France in 1635, Russia in 1638, and England by 1655. Tea was first sold publicly in England at Garway’s Coffee House in London; in 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary, “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before.”

Chinese has been nourishing us with food words for centuries. “Tofu” joined our lexicon in 1880. The word is rendered in Chinese as dòufu; dòu meaning “beans” and fu meaning “rotten.” Tofu is made from a soybean extract and the word “soy” (or soya) is a 17th century Chinese extract. It comes from the word shi-yu; shi in Chinese meaning “salted beans” and yu meaning “oil.” Joining our language around the same time is ginseng, a plant whose root is credited with medicinal properties. Its Chinese name jen shen, literally means “man root,” a reference to the root’s forked shape, which is said to resemble a man.

The word “ketchup” flavours our language early in the 18th century and is generally seen as deriving from the Malay kechap. But this word itself comes from the word kê-tsiap in the Chinese Amoy dialect, where it refers to “pickled fish-brine or sauce.” The original condiment that Dutch traders imported from Asia appears to be a fish sauce or a sauce made from special mushrooms salted for preservation. A 1711 OED citation states, “Soy comes in tubs from Japan and the best ketchup from Tonquin, yet goods of both sorts are made and sold very cheap in China.” The English added a “t” to the Malay word, changed the “a” to a “u” and started making ketchup themselves, using such ingredients as mushrooms, walnuts, cucumbers, and oysters. It wasn’t until American seamen added tomatoes from Mexico or the Spanish West Indies that the quintessential tomato ketchup was born.

As late as the 1990s, another word of Chinese pedigree became popular: feng shui, which refers to the relationship of people to the environment in which they live, particularly their dwelling or workplace. Surprisingly, the word dates back in English to 1797 where we find it referenced in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. You will not, however, find an old citation for the word taikonaut, thus proving that our lexicon is still being enriched by Chinese. It found a home this millennium in the OED to refer to a Chinese astronaut; taikong meaning “outer space.”

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