7 Chinese Loanwords To Expand Your Vocabulary

Feng shui

Feng shui is the Chinese art of creating harmonious surroundings that enhance the balance of yin and yang, or negative and positive forces in the universe. This term comes from the Chinese words literally meaning “wind” and “water.” Architects and designers have been using the principles of feng shui to help situate buildings and graves and arrange rooms since ancient times, though the word did not enter English until the late 1700s.


Scrabble players are sure to recognize the term qi but are less likely to know its meaning. In Chinese philosophy this term refers to vital energies within all living things in the form of breath and bodily fluids. It’s thought that a balance of qi is essential to maintain good health. It literally translates to “breath” and is believed to be regulated by acupuncture.


Gung-ho was introduced into English in 1942 via US Marine officer Evans F. Carlson, who had previously spent time in China. Carlson used this term, which literally translates to “work together,” to lift the morale of the military men he led. These men were often referred to as the “Gung Ho Battalion.”


Though the ultimate origin of ketchup is unknown, it is widely believed that it comes from the Cantonese kéjāp or Amoy ke-tsiap. These terms refer to a pickled fish sauce, or possibly an eggplant sauce. The term ketchup came to English in the early 1700s and has been a staple of the condiment-cupboard lexicon ever since.

Yin and Yang

The yin-yang is the black and white symbol that is familiar to many English speakers. This ubiquitous image represents the mingling of the cosmic forces of yin and yang. Yin is the negative, dark and feminine principle, while yang is the positive, bright and masculine principle. In Chinese philosophy, the interaction and balance of yin and yang are thought to influence the destinies of all creatures and things.


In addition to being one of Will Shortz’s favorite crossword answers thanks to its unusual combination of letters, the term kumquat is a popular Chinese loanword in English. A literal translation of a Cantonese dialectic term meaning “gold orange,” the word kumquat refers to a tiny citrus fruit that is often used in preserves. Additionally kumquat can refer to the shrub that bears this fruit, which is native to China.


Tao comes from the Chinese word for “way” or “path,” and refers to that in virtue of which all things happen or exist and the underlying nature of the universe. The religion and philosophy of Taoism is based on this foundational concept. English speakers started using this metaphysical term in the early 1700s, and continue to use it today, often in light-hearted metaphorical uses beyond its original context.

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