Chinese fire drill

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

"Chinese fire drill" is a slang term for a situation that is chaotic or confusing.[1]


The term goes back to the early 1900s, and is alleged to have originated when a ship run by British officers and a Chinese crew practiced a fire drill in the engine room. The bucket brigade drew water from the starboard side, took it to the engine room, and poured it onto the fire. A separate crew hauled the accumulated water to the main deck and heaved the water over the port side. The drill went according to plan until the orders became confused in translation. The bucket brigade began to draw the water from the starboard side, run over to the port side and then throw the water overboard, bypassing the engine room completely.[2] Additionally, the term is documented to have been used in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, where it was often expressed in the phrase "as screwed up as a Chinese fire drill".[3] It was also commonly used by Americans during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.[4]

Historians trace Westerners' use of the word Chinese to denote "confusion" and "incomprehensibility" to the earliest contacts between Europeans and Chinese people in the 1600s, and attribute it to Europeans' inability to understand and appreciate China's radically different culture and worldview.[5] In his 1989 Dictionary of Invective, British editor Hugh Rawson lists 16 phrases that use the word Chinese to denote "incompetence, fraud and disorganization".[6]

Examples of such usages include:

  • "Chinese puzzle", a puzzle with no or a hard-to-fathom solution[7]
  • "Chinese whispers" (also known as "Broken Telephone", or "Telephone"), a children's game in which a straightforward statement is shared through a line of players one player at a time until it reaches the end, often having been comically transformed along the way into a completely different statement
  • "Chinese ace", an inept pilot, derived from the term One Wing Low (which sounds like a Chinese name), an aeronautical technique[7][8]

Other uses[edit]

The term has been used by Westerners for more than a century, and is today considered to be offensive.[9][10][11]

The term is also used to describe an American college prank (also known as red-light green-light) performed by a vehicle's occupants when stopped at a traffic light, especially when there is a need to swap drivers or fetch something from the trunk. Before the light changes to green, each occupant gets out, runs around the vehicle, and gets back inside, but not necessarily in their original seats. If one of the participants lags, the others may drive off without him or her.[12]

Less commonly, a Chinese fire drill may refer to a literal fire drill on a school bus or the aforementioned gag executed by misbehaving students on a stopped school bus,[13] sometimes involving use of the rear emergency exit.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Partridge, Eric (2008). The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. New York: Routledge. p. 135. ISBN 0-203-96211-7. 
  2. ^ Chinese Fire Drill an article from archives of The Digerati Peninsula
  3. ^ Safire, William (1984). I Stand Corrected: More on Language. New York: Times Books. p. 84. ISBN 0-8129-1097-4. 
  4. ^ Jensen, Richard J. (2003). Trans-Pacific Relations: America, Europe, and Asia in the Twentieth Century. Praeger. p. 155. ISBN 0-7914-6022-3. 
  5. ^ Dale, Corinne H. (2004). Chinese Aesthetics and Literature: A Reader. New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 15–25. ISBN 0-7914-6022-3. 
  6. ^ Hughes, Geoffrey (2006). An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-speaking World. M.E. Sharpe. p. 76. ISBN 0-7656-1231-3. 
  7. ^ a b Blue Moons, Chinese Fire Drill, Cocktail, Galoot, Whazzat thing?, Scotious and Stocious
  8. ^ The Mavens' Word of the Day
  9. ^ Stephenson, Alan R. (2009). Broadcast Announcing Worktext: A Media Performance Guide, Third Edition. New York: Focal Press. p. 92. ISBN 0-240-81058-9. 
  10. ^ Crouch, Ned (2004). Mexicans & Americans: Cracking the Cultural Code. New York: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p. 93. ISBN 1-85788-342-X. 
  11. ^ Ammer, Christine (2008). The Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches: Meanings And Origins of Thousands of Terms and Expressions. New York: Checkmark Books. p. 68. ISBN 0-8160-6280-3. 
  12. ^ Dorson, Richard Merser (1986). Handbook of American Folklore. Indiana University Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-253-32706-7. 
  13. ^ Jeff Walls. "The World According to Lenny!" Fenceviewer (Ellsworth Anmerican). 10 June 2010. Retrieved 1 August 2010. ("This is a state mandated TWICE a year deal we called "Chinese fire drill" in the 60's when bus driver evacuated the bus to practice a fire drill.")
  14. ^ David Heiller. "Chiglo retires after 30 years on bus route." The Caledonia Argus. 27 June 2006. Retrieved 1 August 2010. ("There was the time students jumped out the back door and ran around the bus in a Chinese fire drill.")