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The Harmful Origins of Seemingly Harmless Sayings

Written by Theresa Pham

Graphic by Ira San Andres

I recently learned that some English expressions used in everyday conversation are actually rooted in Chinese dialects. And I’m not talking about words like “ketchup,” “lychee,” or “dim sum,” which innocently made their way into the English language. I’m talking about phrases that first originated in the West with harmful intentions. Here are a couple of words and phrases whose etymology may surprise you:


“Long time no see” comes from the Mandarin saying, “好久不見” (hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn), literally translating to “long time no see.”


“No can do” is another literal translation from both the Cantonese “唔可以” (m ho ji) and the Mandarin “不能做” (bù néng zuò).


“Look-see” is directly translated from the Cantonese “睇見” (táigin) and the Mandarin “看見” (kànjiàn), meaning “a brief inspection.” However, this saying is not as popular today.


“Chop chop” comes from the pronunciation of either the Cantonese saying, “速速” (chuk chuk), or the similar Mandarin saying, “快快” (kuài kuài), both meaning “quickly quickly.”


Although there are different hypotheses on how terms like these ended up in today’s English language, a popular theory claims that these phrases popularized in Western lingo back in the nineteenth century, when the British Navy encountered Chinese workers at sea and mocked their Chinese Pidgin English. I wouldn’t be surprised if these origins were true, considering the seamless similarities between the Chinese sayings and their grammatically incorrect English translations. These imitations are now just unquestioned slang almost two centuries later, and they would be yet another example of how normalized racism was throughout history.


If these are just a couple of examples depicting how Westerners ridiculed Chinese people’s broken English, I cannot imagine how many other expressions used today actually have offensive roots, stemming from encounters with different cultures. But, even if these particular slang debuted in the English language as a mockery, communication evolves, and meanings can change. It is unlikely that the present use of these terms has hurtful intentions, especially considering the widespread lack of knowledge on their origins. Thus, I think it would be a bit unreasonable to regard the general use of such slang today as offensive. I do wish; however, that the etymology of these terms was normally taught in school. After normalizing insults of Chinese Pidgin English, the least we could do is educate English speakers on it. Very few people know the roots of English terms with dark pasts or assume that loan translations are glorified “borrowings” from other languages, even though that isn’t necessarily the case. All English speakers should be aware of the lasting impact that racism has on seemingly small things. No matter how minority groups try to heal today, a discriminatory past is difficult to mend and should be acknowledged rather than merely swept under the rug.


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