Are your chopsticks fast?

Chinese Pidgin English is most certainly a transient language — it arose from contact between English and Chinese traders in the late 17th century and ceased to be spoken by the early 20th century. During its short life Chinese Pidgin English donated several expressions to standard varieties of English, where they live on. Among these donated expressions is chop-chop, meaning ‘hurry up’. Most etymologies of the English word chopsticks (e.g. those in the the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian dictionary) claim that it is also derived from Pidgin English. Chopsticks is taken to be a semi-calque on the word 筷子 kuàizi (Mandarin pronunciation), which is the usual word for chopsticks in many Chinese dialects.1 The 筷 kuài in kuàizi is homophonous in many dialects with the word for ‘fast’, 快 kuài. The theory is that the English word chopsticks comes from the Pidgin word chop ‘fast’ plus the English word stick. The true story may not be that simple, however.

The most commonly repeated etymology for the Chinese word 筷子 kuàizi lends some support to the notion that the chop in chopsticks is a calque on the Chinese. In this etymology the homophony of 快 kuài ‘fast’ and the first syllable of 筷子 kuàizi is considered not to be accidental. The claim usually made is that speakers consciously chose the name 快 kuài (later written with the bamboo radical as 筷) as a reaction against the old word 箸 zhù(also written 筯), which is homophonous with ‘stop’ 住 zhù. The homophony of 箸 zhù with 住 zhù was taken to be inauspicious and so speakers decided to make the word for the eating utensils homophonous with an antonymous, and so more auspicious, word. My favourite Chinese dictionary, the 应用汉语词典 Yìngyòng Hànyǔ cídiǎn (2000), after giving a patriotic spiel about how great chopsticks are, tells the story below.

The name of chopsticks has changed over time. In the pre-Qin period they were called 挟 jiā (sometimes written 䇲); in the Qin-Han period they were called 箸 zhù (written 筯 in the Sui-Tang period). But 箸 zhù and 住 zhù are homophonous, and people thought this was inauspicious because they hope to travel forward smoothly without stopping, so naturally they turned the meaning around and changed 箸 zhù (homophonous with ‘stop’) to 筷 kuài (homophonous with ‘fast’). 筷 kuài appeared around the Song Dynasty. Chopsticks were mostly made from bamboo and so they capped the character 快 kuài ‘fast’ with the bamboo radical 竹 zhú.

筷子的名称有所演变,先秦时期叫”挟”(有时作”䇲”);秦汉时期叫”箸”(隋唐时期写作”筯”)。但”箸”与”住”谐音,人们认为不吉利,希望一帆风顺地不住前进,于是很自然的反其义而称,改”箸”(住)为”筷”(快),”筷”大约是宋代才有称呼。加之这东西大都以竹子制成,因此又在“快“字上冠以”竹”字头。

(应用汉语词典 Yìngyòng Hànyǔ cídiǎn 2000:730)

If the homophony of the Chinese words 筷子 kuàizi and 快 kuài is not accidental, as claimed in the etymology discussed above, then it is quite likely that Chinese Pidgin English speakers would calque 筷 kuài with chop. Chop-chop itself probably comes directly from a Chinese variety. The Hobson-Jobson dictionary proposes that the word is derived from Cantonese kap kap (both syllables in upper yin ru tone) 急急. My Cantonese informant, Hilário de Sousa, tells me that kap kap is found in the modern Cantonese expression kap kap koe:k (koe:k in lower yin ru tone) 急急脚, which means ‘in a hurry’. In Hobson-Jobson it is also suggested that chop-chop could come from Malay chepat-chepat ‘quick-quick’.

Bolton (2003:139) suggests that chopsticks might not be a semi-calque from Chinese Pidgin English but instead a wholly native English word. His argument is that chopsticks appeared in English long before the expression chop-chop and even long before the emergence of Chinese Pidgin English. The earliest attestation of chopsticks listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1699 quote from William Dampier, shown below.

At their ordinary eating they use two small round sticks about the length and bigness of a Tobacco-pipe. They hold them both in the right hand, one between the fore-finger and thumb; the other between the middle-finger and fore-finger..they are called by the English seamen Chopsticks.

Bolton (2003:139) provides an even earlier attestion from the journals of Peter Mundy, who went to China in 1637 on a British navy expedition commanded by Captain John Weddell. Mundy uses the word chopstickes (sic.) to describe the Chinese eating utensils.

Bolton (2003:139) suggests that chopsticks may in fact be derived from the English word chopstick, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘[t]he cross-stick (of iron wire, whale-bone, etc.) attached to a deep-sea fishing-line a short distance from the sinker, from which the short lines bearing the hooks are hung.’ The word chopsticks that relates to fishing is attested as early as 1615, while chop-chop is only attested in 1834 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although Bolton (2003:149) has an earlier attestation from 1793 from the journals of Anderson, who was part of Macartney’s mission to China.

Although the dates of the attestations do not match up, it is quite likely that chop-chop was already current as an expression meaning ‘hurry up’ in the contact language(s) spoken between Europeans and Chinese in the 17th century. There is not a great deal of material that records Chinese Pidgin English as it was spoken in the early days of contact so it would be quite easy for an expression like chop-chop not to be recorded in writing until a long time after it first appeared. Even if chop-chop was not involved in the coining of the word chopsticks, the parallels between these two words and their Chinese equivalents are noticeable and probably would have helped to reinforce the term chopstick in the minds of later speakers of Pidgin English. Bolton’s theory does deserve some attention, however. It would be interesting to know if fishing chopsticks look like the eating utensils or are similar to them in some other way that would allow them to serve as the source of an analogy. So far I have not been able to find any further information about fishing chopsticks. Readers’ contributions are most welcome.

Notes

1筷子 kuàizi, in its various cognate pronunciations, is the usual word for chopsticks in Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese. Southern Min retains the earlier word 箸 zhù.

Printed References

应用汉语词典 Yìngyòng Hànyǔ cídiǎn. 2000. Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan.

Bolton, Kingsley. 2003. Chinese Englishes: a sociolinguistic history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3 Comments

  1. James McElvenny says:

    Jane Simpson has drawn my attention to Moody (1996), where there is a brief discussion of the etymologies of chopsticks and chop-chop. Moody comes to a conclusion similar to that here: the dates for chopsticks and chop-chop don’t seem to match up but there is so little data that it is difficult to say anything for sure.
    Moody, Andrew J. 1996. Transmission languages and source languages of Chinese borrowings in English. American Speech, Vol. 71, No. 4, pp. 405-420.

  2. Sam Billing says:

    Hi, just wanted to thank you for posting your findings on line. I am doing some research on English load words from Chinese for a lexicography class. I had always wondered where the word chopsticks came from, and now in addition to that, I have more info on the chinese ‘筷子’. Thanks for the dictionary recommendation as well. No need to post this, just wanted to say ‘keep up the good work’.

  3. HP Bryce says:

    My wife was asking me why they are called chopsticks last night and I did not have a good response for her. Now I do. Thank you.

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