The Oxford English Dictionary recently announced the inclusion of a number of Cantonese words, including char siu (叉燒), dai pai dong (大排檔) and yum cha (飲茶).
Hongkongers are pretty familiar with these terms already. We also know to add oil (加油) when we’re feeling fed up and hea (迆) when we’re killing time. But how much do you know about the history behind Cantonese-inspired English?
This unique set of phrases and idioms are wide and varied, having evolved from the romanization of Cantonese terms, as well as English phrases in Chinese syntax.
This language swap dates back to the 17th century: When the British first arrived in the Far East, a form of pidgin English emerged and was adopted by the traders and the Cantonese-speaking Chinese in everyday communication. The term pidgin itself is said to be a Cantonese-English word — it comes from the mispronunciation of the word “business.”
As languages change over time, many Chinese phrases and words became ingrained in the general English vocabulary. We greet a friend with “long time no see” (好耐冇見) and we avoid ‘losing face’ (無面, or 丟臉 in Putonghua) at all costs.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s Hong Kong-style additions include “compensated dating” (援助交際), an arrangement that sees a benefactor financially supporting a young woman in exchange for companionship; and “sandwich class” (夾心階層), which refers to lower-middle-class folks who are ineligible for public housing — yet unable to buy property.
Next time you have a ‘look-see’ (睇睇) at the newest restaurant in town where you chow (炒) down on some food accompanied by ‘ketchup’ (茄汁), you’ll know where these words came from.