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May 5, 2011 / Katie

long time no see

好久不见 [hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn]: 1. Long time no see. 2. A greeting for someone you haven’t seen in a while.

I have always been interested in the origins of words and the stories behind them, even though such stories are often farcical, if not totally absurd. In high school, my AP History teacher Dr. Onderdonk–a name that itself merits a linguistic examination–told our class the story of the Mexican-American War. American troops marched down into Mexico by way of Texas, singing a nettlesome little diddy that went something like, “Green grows the grass…” Not only did the Mexicans know full well that the Americans were coming, but they also couldn’t stand the racket they made. And in that moment, the word gringo was born.

Whether you believe the story or not, it illustrates the fluid and ever-expanding nature of languages. The strength of the English language, in my mind, is its ability to borrow and ultimately coopt words and phrases from foreign tongues. (And thank god for Shakespeare, who single-handedly coined more than 1,700 words.)

Thug, for example, comes from the Indian word Thuggee, meaning a gang of murderers and thieves. Typhoon from the Chinese word 台风 (táifēng). Zeitgeist from the German. Déjà vu from the French.

Long time no see, despite its unusual, pidgin-like construction, is a common expression in English. The translation from the Chinese is as literal as it gets: hǎo jiǔ means “a long time,” bú can be translated as “no,” and jiàn is “to see” or “to meet a person.”

No matter what language you speak, running into an old friend or a long lost love evokes something universal: that warm fuzzy feeling inside. It’s especially nice when Jay Chou sings it to you. As for me, I should really be saying: 好久没写 (long time no write!)

Share the “Chinese loan” words you’ve come across in the comments below.

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3 Comments

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  1. contemporarycontempt / May 9 2011 1:48 am

    Most languages are pretty fluid in their adoption of characteristics, words, sounds, and phrases from other languages they come into contact with. No culture/language is an island…even those that exist primarily on islands. As for your call for “Chinese loan” words, the one that comes to mind is “aiya!” Now, I’m not really sure if that’s Chinese, but I love it as an expression of exasperation. It just seems to capture so much in the moment of utterance.

  2. Lisa in Toronto / Jun 10 2011 10:49 pm

    I had been trying to collect words used in English which come from Cantonese.
    Typhoon and tycoon come to mind. Ketchup/catsup seems likely too.

    In a non-Chinese example, I always wondered why congee was called congee in English. Does not sound like juk or zhou at all. It turns out it comes from Hindi!

    And you can apparently use “badem” to talk about almonds from India to Turkey.

    languages are fabulous!

    • Katie / Jun 10 2011 11:20 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Lisa. Those are some great words! Do you know what congee means in Hindi? Do they also have rice porridge?

      Another one that came to mind recently was canteen or 餐厅 (cāntīng) which means cafeteria in Mandarin. I’m sure there must be many more to discover…

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