Chop-chop


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.”

One 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.

Trend of chop – chop in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.