Chinese fire drill
A Chinese fire drill is a slang term that has been used by Westerners for more than a century, and is today considered by some to be mildly offensive. It is used to describe any situation that is chaotic or confusing.
It 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 change drivers or get 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 his original seat). If one of the participants lags, the others may drive off without him.
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, sometimes involving use of the rear emergency exit.
The term goes back to the early 1900s, and is known to have been used in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1940s, 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.
It is alleged to have originated when a ship staffed 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 threw 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.
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 puzzle", a puzzle with no or a hard-to-fathom solution
- "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
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- Blue Moons, Chinese Fire Drill, Cocktail, Galoot, Whazzat thing?, Scotious and Stocious
- The Mavens' Word of the Day