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Q From Bob Patrick: How did military food come to be known as chow?

A We don’t know all the ins and outs of this one, but the basic facts seem to be fairly clear. Its immediate origin is a Chinese-English pidgin which was used by indentured Chinese labourers who built the railroads in and into California last century. It seems that the original was the repeated chow chow, and in that form it’s recorded in a glossary prepared by a member of the staff of the British embassy in Beijing at the end of the eighteenth century. One theory is that chow chow originally referred to a preserve of ginger and orange peel in syrup, or possibly a mixed vegetable pickle. It is also said to derive from the Chinese word ch’ao, meaning “to fry or cook”. Its pidgin use in an institutional or communal context in California seems to be why it still has links with military or prison life. So far as we know, it has nothing to do with the dog of the same name, which is probably connected with the Chou dynasty.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Dec. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-cho1.htm
Last modified: 5 December 1998.