Friday, 9 September 2011

English phrases borrowed from Chinese - kind of

What I'm talking about are not the obvious Chinese-sounding words like tofu and Feng Shui (which are indeed borrowed or imported from Chinese - hands up those who know that Feng Shui means 'Wind + Water')

What I'm interested in now is how many other English phrases and idioms are derived from Chinese by translation of the original Chinese words. There was after all a lot of contact between England and China from about 1800 onwards and there has been a continuous contact via the entrepôt of Hong Hong.

One example I had heard of was the phrase a 'look-see' (as in "I think I might just wander over there for a quick look-see"). This is apparently well-attested as being a translation (or 'calque' for the more linguistically-minded) of the Chinese phrase 看见 (kàn jiàn) which  means 'look-see'.

However I was very surprised to realise that the idiom 'to lose face' is also taken directly from Chinese. It seemed so comfortably English that I had never suspected it was an  interloper, but it seems that it was taken in the 19th century from the much older Chinese expressions regarding face. The usual Chinese phrase for 'lose face' is 丢面子 (diū miàn zi). The concept of 'face' is much richer in the Chinese language than in English and you can, for example, make a conscious effort to 'give someone face' by treating them as important or worthy in front of others.

If anyone knows of or suspects other loans of this type I'd be glad to hear.

1 comment:

  1. Tea!
    It comes from the Hokkien ‘te’
    Meanwhile, the Mandarin pronunciation evolved to 'cha'