Don’t be brainwashed by Tim Bowen’s gung ho approach to English words from the Chinese language.

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Many words of Chinese origin that are used in English are words related to food. 

Common examples include that most staple of English beverages tea, foods such as tofu (from the Cantonese for ‘bean curd’) and lychee (a sub-tropical fruit), ginseng (a root that forms an important component of Chinese traditional medicine), and standard Chinese dishes such as chow mein, chop suey and dim sum. Stir-fry is traditionally prepared in a wok, a word derived from a Cantonese word for boiler or cauldron. 

Made famous in a series of films in the later 20th century, kung fu is a collective term in English for Chinese martial arts, while tai chi (a shortened form of a Chinese expression approximating to ‘supreme, ultimate fist’) is a form of martial art, the disciplines of which are also intended to bring health benefits to its practitioners.

Another Chinese leisure activity is mah-jong, a game played with 144 tiles by four players. 

The words for two well-known breeds of dog have also passed into English, namely Shih Tzu (lion child dog) and Shar pei (sand skin). 

The term gung ho, meaning ‘over-zealous’ or ‘over-enthusiastic’, as in ‘The manager’s gung ho approach will bring nothing but trouble’, has its origins in Chinese industry, while the practice of feng shui (wind water) is the practice of harmonizing one’s environment, especially when designing buildings. 

Teaching tip: ask learners to use a search engine to find the meaning (and the original Chinese meaning) of these English words of Chinese origin: brainwashing (a literal translation of the Chinese term), chin chin, chop chop, hoisin, kumquat, shanghai (verb) and tangram. Tip: the question ‘What is the origin of the word …’ will usually provide an answer.