Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chinese Loanwords: Part 1

In previous weeks, we've looked at loanwords from languages like Hebrew and Nahuatl that have made it into the English language. Today we've decided it's finally time to tackle some Chinese loanwords, starting with a quick taste of some food terminology taken from various members of the Chinese language family.

Bok Choy - If you've ever eaten Chinese food and ordered this, we hope you weren't surprised to find cabbage on your plate. This Chinese variety of cabbage gets its name from Cantonese, and literally translates as "white vegetable".

Chop Suey - This dish is quite popular in Chinese cuisine outside of China, which is arguably quite different from the real thing. Its origins are unclear, but it may actually have been invented by Chinese immigrants in America in the early 1900s. In any case, it's generally made of whatever meat you have available cooked with eggs and some vegetables in sauce, served over rice or noodles. Due to this very unspecific recipe, it should come as no surprise that its name comes from the Cantonese term tsap sui meaning "odds and ends" or "mixed pieces".

We wish we could have some dim sum right now...
Dim Sum - What could be better than a delicious brunch full of tiny but filling portions of dumplings, steamed buns, egg rolls, cakes, and tea? This Cantonese tradition literally translates as "touch the heart", which is said to refer to it being not a main meal, but a snack.

Kumquat - We're pretty sure this one wins the award for being the most interesting fruit name in English. These small orange fruits get their name from the combination of Cantonese kam meaning "golden" and kwat, meaning "orange".

Oolong - Speaking of interesting names, this dark variety of tea has a fairly unique name as well. It's likely from the Amoy dialect term wu-lung, and literally translates as "black dragon"!

Tea - Last, but certainly not least, we have the second most popular beverage in the world. (If you're wondering, water wins the top spot.) Many Americans wrongly assume it's a British invention given their well-known love of tea, but it actually originated in China. Its name comes from the character 茶 (we hope this is correct, as we can't read Chinese!), which has differing pronunciations in various Chinese languages. In the Amoy dialect, it is pronounced like te, which is where we get "tea" from. However, in Cantonese, it is pronounced cha, which eventually became "chai", a term we usually reserve in English for spiced teas.

Tomorrow we'll conclude our look at Chinese loanwords with some non-culinary terminology.

Read part 2.