John Hardy‘s comment in my latest Sapir-Whorf thread led me to this brilliant article (on the brilliant Zompist site) on how English could be written with a character system; if you don’t know how the Chinese writing system works (which you probably don’t if you haven’t studied it), read about “yingzi” and you’ll learn the basics.

One example from the article leads me to a brief etymological excursus:

“One way would be to use hanzi directly, as the Japanese do…. Chinese and Japanese borrowings could be written using the original hanzi, e.g. ‘gung-ho’ would be 工合.” Now, he doesn’t explain “gung ho” further, but most dictionaries give it as Chinese for ‘work together.’ It’s not that simple. To quote the always quotable American Heritage Dictionary:

Earlier Gung Ho, motto of certain U.S. Marine forces in Asia during World War II, from Chinese (Mandarin) gonghé, to work together (short for gongyèhézuòshè, Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society) : gong, work + , together.

Most of us are not aware of it today, but the word gung ho has been in English only since 1942 and is one of the many words that entered the language as a result of World War II. It comes from Mandarin Chinese gonghé, “to work together,” which was used as a motto by the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society. Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson (1896–1947) borrowed the motto as a moniker for meetings in which problems were discussed and worked out; the motto caught on among his Marines (the famous “Carlson’s Raiders”), who began calling themselves the “Gung Ho Battalion.” From there eager individuals began to be referred to as gung ho.

However, this is not quite correct. There is no “Chinese gonghé, to work together”; gonghé is purely an abbreviation for the full name gongyèhézuòshè, and corresponds exactly to the equivalent English abbreviation Indusco. So what Carlson’s Raiders were actually yelling as they charged the enemy was “Indusco!” Inspiring, no?


  1. Speaking of WW2 borrowings that are opaque… You know skosh from sukoshi (a little), right?

  2. Sure! When we were living in Japan, my mother always used to say “Just a skosh more.”

  3. dasda

  4. John Morris says

    I write a Veterans’ newsletter each month. I believe my jarhead friends will enjoy learning about the origins of gung ho. They like anything that draws attention to them.
    Gung ho was used to describe a service person who really liked the Army/Marines/Navy/Air Force/Coast Guard. It was not considered a compliment if the speaker was a low ranking enlisted man.
    Good work.
    John Morris

  5. I think you should mention Rewi Alley, who is famous for setting up these cooperatives in 1938, and for deciding to use Gung Ho as the slogan.
    He is a greatly honoured New Zealand hero, who is acknowledged for coining the word ‘Gung Ho’, and for all the good work his did in and for China throughout his life.
    You can check out more history about Rewi and Gung Ho at the NZChinaSociety website.

  6. Thanks to both of you, and you’re right, J — I should have mentioned Alley.

  7. I think the phrase ‘gung ho’ is 更好 pronounced in Cantonese. The two Chinese characters mean ‘much better’ or ‘can be better’. More likely, the NZ officer had a friend from Hong Kong where Cantonese were and still spoken. 更好 makes more sense than 工合,

  8. From dictionary: Chow is an American English word that originated in California around 1856, from the Chinese pidgin English chow-chow, “food,” which probably originated with the Chinese cha, “mixed.”

    HOWEVER, the last part is wrong. The character for food, ”chow” is the same as the repeated character for the dog breed, ”Chow-chow”. And it is the same character for vegetables, which in Cantonese was usually written as ”choi”. People in the older generation, like me, would refer to foods as rice and vegetables. Having a meal is ”eating rice” but ordering in a restaurant is ”pointing vegetables” even if the dish is mainly meat. The breed of dog is one that commonly goes into a dish, a ”choi” or ”chow”.
    The link, or mislink, to ”mixed” may have come from Cantonese call stir-frying as ”chao choi” and ”chao” is the action of stir frying in a wok.

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