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 were to draw water from the starboard side, pass it to the engine room, and pour it onto the 'fire'. To prevent flooding, a separate crew was to ferry the accumulated water from the engine room up to the main deck and heave 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 directly 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 puzzle", a puzzle with no or a hard-to-fathom solution.[7]
  • "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.[7][8]

Other usesEdit

The term can also refer to a prank originating in the 1960s in which the occupants of an automobile jump out, run around the vehicle, and jump back in at a different door, usually while at a red light or other form of traffic stoppage.[9] This is sometimes also used to refer to a driver and passenger intentionally switching places in the middle of the road because the driver is having trouble with road conditions. For example: "My driving lesson went so badly the instructor insisted we do a Chinese fire drill."

In popular cultureEdit

A Chinese Firedrill is the name of a solo project by Armored Saint and Fates Warning bassist Joey Vera. It released an album, Circles, in 2007.[10] The album uses different musical foundations in each song, such that it is "chaotic or confusing," like a "Chinese fire drill."

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. ^ a b Blue Moons, Chinese Fire Drill, Cocktail, Galoot, Whazzat thing?, Scotious and Stocious
  8. ^ The Mavens' Word of the Day
  9. ^ "What's So 'Chinese' About A Chinese Fire Drill?". Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  10. ^ Vera, Joey. "Discography". Retrieved 2019-04-28.