Chinese fire drill
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. 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". It was also commonly used by Americans during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
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. In his 1989 Dictionary of Invective, British editor Hugh Rawson lists 16 phrases that use the word Chinese to denote "incompetence, fraud and disorganization".
Examples of such usages include:
- "Chinese home run", a baseball term for either a home run that just barely clears the closest fence to home plate, usually in a park with an unusually short fence, and often derided as unearned or undeserved; or a foul ball hit high and backward, i.e. in the wrong direction. The former sense was once in wide use but is now considered offensive and dated; the latter is still used in the U.S. region of New England.
- "Chinese puzzle", a puzzle with no or a hard-to-fathom solution
- "Chinese whispers" (also known as "Broken Telephone", "Rumors" 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 supposedly sounds like a Chinese name), an aeronautical technique
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.
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- Chinese Fire Drill an article from archives of The Digerati Peninsula
- Safire, William (1984). I Stand Corrected: More on Language. New York: Times Books. p. 84. ISBN 0-8129-1097-4.
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- Dickson, Paul (2011). Skip McAfee, ed. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co. pp. 182–84. ISBN 9780393073492. Retrieved March 10, 2015.
- Blue Moons, Chinese Fire Drill, Cocktail, Galoot, Whazzat thing?, Scotious and Stocious
- The Mavens' Word of the Day
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- Dorson, Richard Merser (1986). Handbook of American Folklore. Indiana University Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-253-32706-7.
- Jeff Walls. "The World According to Lenny!" Fenceviewer (Ellsworth Anmerican). 10 June 2010. Retrieved 1 August 2010. ("We would get to the first red light and we would do a Chinese fire drill with 44 kids running around a school bus")