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Chinese fire drill

"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 and appreciate 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.[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.
  • "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 usesEdit

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. A lagging participant may be left behind.[10][11]

See alsoEdit


  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. p. 176. ISBN 0-253-32706-7. 
  11. ^ 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")