“Ketchup” And Other Words From Mandarin And Cantonese

Think you only speak English? Think again. While you may not be fluent or able to write in another language, the fact is that English consists largely of words we’ve borrowed from other languages. In fact, about 80 percent of the English language is made up of these loanwords.  

WATCH: What Are The Most Fun-to-say Words In Different Languages?

It’s amazing really to think of how many languages you speak on a daily basis without even realizing it. Take Chinese, for example. While China may seem a world away in terms of distance, there are plenty of words we use from the country’s languages regularly. 

In China, two of the major forms of Chinese spoken are Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is the official language of mainland China, spoken primarily in the north as well as in Singapore and Taiwan. Cantonese, on the other hand, is spoken primarily in southern China, including Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, the English language borrows from both. Let’s take a look at some of the words English ultimately owes to Chinese, along one etymological pathway or another.


As American as this condiment may seem, the word apparently comes from the Chinese language. Via the Malay kəchap (“fish sauce”), ketchup is believed to derive from two Chinese forms: kéjāp (Guangdong) and ke-tsiap (Xiamen). The literal Chinese translation is “eggplant juice.” Hmm, so when did tomato get mixed up in it?


Whether or not ketchup on tofu sounds tasty is up to you, but the word for this healthy, soybean-based food also comes to us from China. It comes into English from Japanese (tōfu), which is itself heavily indebted to the Chinese language. The old Chinese word dòufu combines dòu, meaning bean” and , meaning “turn sour, ferment.”

Shih Tzu

Sweet little Shih Tzu puppies are a popular breed in the United States now, but they used to be considered pets of nobility in China. Their name is shīzi gǒu, which comes from shīzi meaning “lion” and gǒu,  meaning “dog.” They are Shih Tzus, hear them roar … or bark. 


You may say you’re gung-ho about something—be it for the latest Netflix series or a new project at work—if you’re really excited about it. While the term was used as a Marine training slogan in the mid–1900s in the United States, it stems from the Mandarin phrase gōng hé, which is the abbreviated name of the Chinese Cooperative Society, meaning “work together.” 


If you kowtow to your boss or your bossy sister-in-law, you’re deferring to them or letting them have their way. The word stems from the Cantonese word kòutóu, which means to “ knock (one’s) head,” but we don’t recommend ever kowtowing to anyone that hard. 


Ah, if only we could all be tycoons. Defined as “a person of great wealth, influence, or power,” the word tycoon comes from the Japanese word taikun, which is equivalent to the Chinese words , meaning “great” and jūn, meaning “prince.” Similar in sound, but less enviable, is the word typhoon, which also ultimately comes from Chinese. It’s akin to the word dàfēng meaning, “great wind,” which, in turn, was altered by association with the Greek word tȳphôn, meaning “violent wind.” 


Yes, a yen is a Japanese coin, whose name comes from the name of the Chinese currency, yuan. But in this case we’re talking about the definition that refers to “a desire or craving” for something, which comes from Chinese. As in, I have a yen for some ice cream. It comes from the Chinese word yáhn, which is akin to yǐn, meaning “craving, addiction.” 

yin and yang

You may tell your soulmate, “You are the yin to my yang,” which, to take a line from the movie Jerry Mcguire, means they complete you. Yin and yang stem from the word yīn-yáng, which combines yin meaning “feminine” and yang, meaning “male genitals.” It describes the Chinese belief that two principles—one related to the moon, shade, and femininity, and the other to daylight, sun, and male genitals— interact with one another to determine destinies.  

Learn more about yin and yang in our Vocab Builder article.


You probably hear this phrase most often used as a toast these days, as drinkers clink glasses and proclaim, “Chin, chin!” But it’s also a noun for all that lighthearted party prattle, defined as “polite and ceremonious speech” or “light conversation; chitchat.” However you choose to use it, know that it comes from the Chinese word qǐng-qǐng, meaning “please-please,” which was itself used as a toast and greeting. 

So, the next time you put some ketchup on your hot dog, or get gung-ho about eating healthy and buy some tofu in bulk, take a second to recognize how these words came to be. Maybe it will make you hungry to learn more about these languages … or just hungry for some Chinese food.

In any case, digging into the origins of the words that make up the English language is endlessly fascinating and gives us a better understanding of what we’re saying.  

How many of these words did you know had Chinese origins? 


What other languages do you inadvertently speak? You might be surprised by how many Urdu and Hindi words you know.

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