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The meaning and origin of the expression: Chop chop

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Chop chop'?

Be quick; hurry up.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Chop chop'?

This little reduplicated term has its origins in the South China Sea, as a Pidgin English version of the Chinese term k'wâi-k'wâi. The earliest known citation of chop-chop in print is from the English language newspaper that was printed in Canton in the early 19th century - The Canton Register, 13th May 1834:

We have also... 'chop-chop hurry'.

A slightly fuller account was printed two years later, in a monthly journal which was produced by and for American missionaries in Canton - The Chinese Repository. In January 1836 it contained an article headed 'Jargon Spoken in Canton', which included:

"Chop-chop - pidgin Cantonese phrase for 'Hurry up!'"

The adoption of the chop-chop pronunciation was influenced by the long-standing use of 'chop' and 'chop-up' by English seamen, with the meaning 'quick' or 'hurried'. This usage dates back to at least the 16th century, when it was commonly used in the strange expression - 'chopping-up the whiners'. This referred to gabbling through prayers in order to get them finished quickly; for example, from Philip Stubbes' The anatomie of abuses, 1583:

Which maketh them [Reading ministers] to gallop it over as fast as they can, and to chop it up with all possible expedition, though none understand them.

The seafaring usage of 'chop up' referred specifically to a sudden change in the wind and the waves. This also gives us of the term 'choppy' for turbulent water and is a constituent part of the expression 'chop and change'. 'Chop-up' was recorded by Sir William Monson in Naval Tracts, 1642:

"The Wind would chop up Westerly."

Chop-chopOne of the many other meanings of the word chop is 'to eat; to snap up' - that is, 'to take into the chops' (the jaws/cheeks/mouth). It would be a reasonable conjecture that this was the source of the word 'chop-sticks'. Reasonable, but not correct. It is the 17th century sailor's slang use of 'chop' to mean 'quick' which led to chop-sticks. The nimbleness of the Chinese in their eating without the aid of forks caused the seamen to coin the term 'quick-sticks' or chop-sticks'. William Dampier recorded this in 1699 in A New Voyage Round the World:

"At their ordinary eating they [the Chinese] use two small round sticks about the length and bigness of a Tobacco-pipe. They hold them both in the right hand, one between the fore-finger and thumb; the other between the middle-finger and fore-finger... they are called by the English seamen Chopsticks."

This is in line with the original Chinese meaning. The Chinese name for chop-sticks is k'wâi-tsze, which translates literally as 'nimble boys' or 'nimble ones'.

Apart from in travelogues of the Far-East, there is little recorded mention of chop-sticks in English until the mid 20th century. The term 'quicksticks' however, did make it back to Britain in the 19th century, as an imperative meaning 'hurry up; do it without delay'. John C. Hotten recorded this in A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, 1859:

"Quick sticks, in a hurry, rapidly; 'to cut quick sticks', to be in a great hurry."

See other reduplicated phrases.

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