Gung ho about ketchup and other Chinese words

Updated: 2013-03-25 15:42

By Michael Barris in New York (China Daily)

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Gung ho about ketchup and other Chinese words

Heinz's produces plenty of tomato ketchup, and it says the word "ketchup" originated from a Chinese sauce pronounced "catsup". Bloomberg

As a language expert, Alan Yu is used to all kinds of influences showing up in English words.

But even the University of Chicago linguistics professor is surprised at the Chinese origins of the word "ketchup".

"This is what academics, having dinner together, talk about as one of the more interesting bits of the English language," Yu says of the far-flung roots of many English words.

While German, French and Latin generally are said to have made the biggest impact on the English that Westerners speak, read and mangle, Chinese also appears as an influence in words such as kumquat, gung ho, and kowtow.

But for millions of Americans used to dumping the beloved condiment on their French fries, scrambled eggs and hamburgers, none of those connections may be as startling as the Chinese link to ketchup.

In fact, HJ Heinz Co, the Pittsburgh-based maker of one of the world's best selling ketchup brands, confirmed in a statement to China Daily that ketchup "originated from a Chinese sauce pronounced catsup".

In a nutshell, here's the deal on ketchup, at least according to Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford University professor who has written a blog called "The Language of Food".

Jurafsky's blog cites evidence that ketchup has roots in eastern Fujian province as a fish sauce. "This fish sauce in the Southern Min (southern Fujian) dialect in the 18th century was called something like 'ke-tchup', 'ge-tchup', or 'kue-chiap', depending on the dialect," Jurafsky writes.

"Those of you who speak Southern Min or Cantonese dialects will recognize the last syllable of the (American pronunciation of the word), chiap or tchup, as the word for 'sauce' - pronounced zhi in Mandarin."

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