4 English Words and Sayings with Unexpected Chinese Origins

It’s quite common for languages to borrow words and phrases from each other, especially when there is no equivalent or suitable translation.

Sometimes it’s taken phonetically — like “boi choi” from 白菜 (baak coi in Cantonese) or “feng shui” from 風水 (fēng shuǐ in Mandarin). This is what’s commonly done with location names like Shanghai from 上海 (shàng hǎi in Mandarin).

Other times, it’s a literal translation like “paper tiger” from 纸老虎(zhǐlǎohǔ in Mandarin).

These examples are quite obviously not words that originated from the English language. However, the next four examples have become so indoctrinated into the English language that their Chinese origins might surprise you.


“a seasoned pureed condiment usually made from tomatoes”

The tomato-based ketchup that we know and love today wasn’t invented till 1812. But the origins of ketchup (long before it was tomato-based) date back to 300 BC from southern China as a fermented fish sauce.

One theory about the word “ketchup” is that it originated from the Cantonese 茄汁 (keh jup) which literally means “tomato sauce”. It’s believed that the word “ketchup” was adopted into the English language as “catchup” in 1960 as “a high East-India Sauce”.

Who could have guessed that even America’s classic condiment was “made” in China?


“a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas”

I always thought “brainwash” was a bit of a funny word — wash the brain? But the origin of this word has a far less funny history.

The term comes from 洗腦 (xǐnăo in Mandarin) which literally translates to “wash brain”. It originates from the Maoist government’s thought reform campaign in the People’s Republic of China in the early 1950s. Some believe it to be a play on the Taoist custom of 洗心 (xǐxīn in Mandarin), which means “wash heart”.

“Brainwash” entered the English language in 1950. It was coined by an American named Edward Hunter after interviewing former Chinese prisoners who had been subject to “re-education”.

Long time no see

“said when you meet someone who you haven’t seen for a long period of time”

Have you ever noticed that “long time no see” doesn’t make any grammatical sense? It should be “I haven’t seen you in a long time” or “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you”.

It doesn’t follow English grammar rules because it didn’t originate from English. One theory hypothesizes that it originates from the Cantonese greeting 好耐冇見 ( hou noi mou gin) which literally translates to “long time no see”.

“Long time no see” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1901 and it’s believed to have been brought back to English by the British Navy. The saying “long time no talk” is a variation of “long time no see”.

Lose face

“to become less respected by others”

The saying “lose face” triggers a funny mental picture for me — how exactly do you intend on losing your face?

It’s another literal translation from the Chinese saying 丢脸 (tiu lien in Mandarin), which can be loosely translated to not being able to show one’s face in public.

Ironically, “save face” has no Chinese equivalent.

Did any of these surprise you?

As a native English speaker, I’ve gotten so used to the idiosyncrasies of the English language that I’ve never thought twice about some of our common sayings, regardless of their clear disregard for grammar.

Language, like culture, is constantly evolving and changing so it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover different languages building off each other. Personally, I find it fascinating to learn the etymology of some of these borrowed words and sayings!

Written by Allison @theconflictedmillenial

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