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Quick! What Are The Origins Of 'Chop-Chop'?

A photograph of the Pearl River in Canton or Guangzhou, China, taken around 1870-1880.
UIG via Getty Images
A photograph of the Pearl River in Canton or Guangzhou, China, taken around 1870-1880.

It takes a special kind of actor to mix bombast and fatuousness to comic effect — think Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock or Will Ferrell in Anchorman. But the all-time King of Pomposity was the late Ted Knight. He played the role of newscaster Ted Baxter in the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Judge Elihu Smails in Caddyshack.

Aside from being a status-crazed schmuck, the Smails character is a racist who calls locker room attendant Smoke Porterhouse a "colored boy." In a sublime act of retaliation, Porterhouse tries to destroy a pair of shoes belonging to Smails, who is president of the country club. The judge, not knowing how the shoes got to be in their deplorable condition, huffily demands that Porterhouse repair the damage:

"Oh, Porterhouse! Look at the wax buildup on these shoes. I want that wax stripped off there, then I want them creamed and buffed with a fine chamois, and I want them now. Chop-chop."

I cannot think of a more condescending way to tell someone to hurry up than telling them to "chop-chop" — especially if the phrase is accompanied by clapping or snapping fingers.

Several etymological dictionaries trace the origins of the word to a version of pidgin English used on ships (and later by Chinese servants and traders who regularly interacted with foreigners). The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first usage of "chop chop" in print to an 1834 article in the Canton(Ohio)Register. Two years later, it would also appear in The Penny Magazine, an illustrated English publication geared toward the working class. In an 1838 article, "Chinese English," the magazine defined "chop-chop" as "the sooner the better," but made no mention of the phase being rude or curt.

According to Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India, the noted Anglo-Indian dictionary published in 1886, the phrase originates from the Cantonese word kap,or 急 (which means "make haste"). In Mandarin, the word is jí, and in Malay it's chepat.This evolved into "chop-chop" and was quickly picked up by the Englishmen who traveled the Asian seas.

The utterance "chop-chop" would also become closely associated with class over time, and was almost always said by someone powerful to someone "below." A good example of this can be found in William C. Hunter's 1882 history of life in Canton, or Guangzhou, China, where he notes that "[w]hen a coolie is sent on an errand requiring haste, he is told to go 'chop-chop.' "

By the 1900s, "chop-chop" had become an established part of military jargon, with the "chop-chop signal" included in the U.S. Army's 1916 Signal book and with the phrase commonly being used to mean "hurry, hurry." Former soldier Eugene G. Schulz described how Army officers would snap at soldiers in his memoir of World War II:

"[W]e hated the obnoxious sergeant from the kitchen who stood at the end of the steam table who constantly yelled 'All right, you guys, get the lead out of your rear and keep moving. Chop! Chop!' "

Like many other words and phrases that trace their origins to Asia (see the "head honcho" or "the boondocks") the phrase "chop-chop" saw renewed usage during the wars of the second half of the 20th century. It was during the Korean War that chop-chop's second meaning as a slang word for food or eating began to be used again. (This definition also spawned the English word for chopsticks.)

A 1951 article in the Baltimore Suncontrasted the two definitions, noting that "chop-chop in World War II meant hurry up, snap into it, get on the ball, et cetera. In Korea, chop-chop is most natives' term for eat, and many GIs are picking it up." It should be noted that the Sun seemed to miss that "chop-chop" was just pidgin English rather than actual Korean.

And during the Vietnam War, according to Gregory Clark's Words of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese children begging for food would often ask GIs for "chop-chop," and soldiers would sometimes oblige by throwing C-ration cans to the children.

But it is the slightly obnoxious command to hurry up that "chop-chop" remains best known for today. The fictional Maj. Frank Burns uses it perfectly during "The Novocaine Mutiny" episode of the beloved sitcom M*A*S*H. "Chop, chop!" he commands. "Get the lead out! This is a war, you know!"

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Lakshmi Gandhi