• synonyms


or coo·ly

noun Disparaging and Offensive.
  1. an unskilled laborer, especially formerly in China and India.
  2. an unskilled laborer employed cheaply, especially one brought from Asia.
  3. a contemptuous term used to refer to an Asian, especially an Indian living in South Africa.
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  1. Informal. characteristic of or suitable for a coolie: working for coolie wages.
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Origin of coolie

1545–55; < Urdu kūlī < Tamil kūli hire, hireling

Usage note

Both meanings of “unskilled Asian laborer” are found almost exclusively in historical contexts, suggesting imperialistic exploitation of these workers. But coolie is still current as an insulting term used to refer to a person of Asian descent, especially in South Africa.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for coolie

Historical Examples of coolie

  • The coolie was again bound, this time more tightly than ever.

    In the Forbidden Land

    Arnold Henry Savage Landor

  • But, while the negro can do more work in a day than the coolie, he won't.

    Plotting in Pirate Seas

    Francis Rolt-Wheeler

  • As he had evolved from a coolie labourer to a multi-millionaire, so had his name evolved.

  • To fall to the job of a coolie is, for the Hindu, the worst declassment.

    The New World of Islam

    Lothrop Stoddard

  • Two reluctant men were sent to the relief of the coolie in distress.

    An Explorer's Adventures in Tibet

    A. Henry Savage Landor

British Dictionary definitions for coolie



noun plural -ies
  1. a cheaply hired unskilled Oriental labourer
  2. derogatory an Indian living in South Africa
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Word Origin for coolie

C17: from Hindi kulī, probably of Dravidian origin; related to Tamil kūli hire, hireling
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for coolie


name given by Europeans to hired laborers in India and China, c.1600, from Hindi quli "hired servant," probably from kuli, name of an aboriginal tribe or caste in Gujarat. The name was picked up by the Portuguese, who used it in southern India (where by coincidence kuli in Tamil meant "hire") and in China.

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Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper