Chinese fire drill

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"Chinese fire drill" is a slang term for a situation that is chaotic or confusing, possibly due to poor or misunderstood instructions.[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 for a fire 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'. To prevent flooding, a separate crew hauled the accumulated water from the engine room, up to the main deck and heaved the water over the port side. The drill had previously gone 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 China's radically different culture and world view.[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]

Other examples of such use include:

  • "Chinese home run", a baseball term for either a home run that just barely clears the fence closest 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, primarily because of linguistic corruption of the name "Chaney".[7]
  • "Chinese puzzle", a puzzle with no or a hard-to-fathom solution.[8]
  • "Chinese whispers", 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. Known as 'telephone' in North America and Brazil.
  • "Chinese ace", an inept pilot, derived from the term "one wing low" (which supposedly sounds like a Chinese name), an aeronautical technique.[8][9]

Other uses[edit]

The term is also used to describe a U.S. collegiate 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.[10]

In the real time strategy computer game Age of Empires II, the phrase was often used to describe large armies made of ranged units like archers quickly overwhelming an opponent army and workers while struggling to raze its buildings.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

A Chinese Firedrill is the name of a solo project by Armored Saint and Fates Warning bassist Joey Vera, which to date has released a single album Circles in 2007.[11] The name comes from the different musical foundations in each song, almost giving the impression that, like a "Chinese firedrill", it is "chaotic or confusing."

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 Archived 2012-12-24 at
  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. ^ Dickson, Paul (2011). Skip McAfee (ed.). The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co. pp. 182–84. ISBN 978-0-393-07349-2. Retrieved March 10, 2015.
  8. ^ a b Blue Moons, Chinese Fire Drill, Cocktail, Galoot, Whazzat thing?, Scotious and Stocious
  9. ^ The Mavens' Word of the Day
  10. ^ Dorson, Richard Merser (1986). Handbook of American Folklore. Indiana University Press. pp. 176. ISBN 0-253-32706-7.
  11. ^ Vera, Joey. "Discography". Retrieved 2019-04-28.