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No offence!! Please take it just for knowledge. I heard one of my friends saying Americans can eat Chinese but Chinese can't eat Americans. He said so for fun, and everybody was just laughing. But I want to know how the English language comes into the picture.

One thing, I guess, is that there is a game of plurals. Where Chinese in singular and plural has same letters, but not American?

P.S Of course, it was about Chinese food.

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As you implicitly recognise, Chinese is a noun in the second clause, but an adjective in the first. There is nothing to stop the Chinese eating American (assuming they like McDonald's). –  TimLymington Apr 12 at 14:21
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@Tim Isn't this an adverbial usage? I can't see this as a subject-related depictive. Once the alleged object is dropped, can 'Chinese' still be classed as an adjective? –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 12 at 15:53
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Of course they can, they just have to cook them properly. –  user71169 Apr 12 at 16:19
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@Tim These constructions where various words are dropped play havoc with POS analyses. It's enough to make you a follower of J Lawler. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 12 at 18:24
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Americans also eat Japanese and Vietnamese. –  Mike Apr 12 at 21:34

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It's very common in the UK to say 'Let's go for an Indian' meaning let's go to an Indian restaurant and eat Indian food. Historically this is because of the large number of people arriving from India who opened restaurants, a novelty in the 1960s and 70s.

This was brilliantly satirised in the 1990s by the sketch show Goodness Gracious Me where the cast 'go for an English':

One of the more famous sketches featured the cast "going out for an English" after a few lassis. They mispronounce the waiter's name, order the blandest thing on the menu (apart from one of them, who opts for the tastier option of a steak and kidney pie) and ask for twenty-four plates of chips. The sketch parodies often-drunk English people "going out for an Indian", ordering chicken phall and too many papadums. This sketch was voted the 6th Greatest Comedy Sketch on a Channel 4 list show.

So I guess people could say 'Let's eat American' (singular) - whether they do or not is another matter. America is such a mixture of different cultures that it might be hard to define what an 'American' is, in food terms.

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I was hoping that clinking on your link would take me to youtube.com/watch?v=ix9OP1i9UN8 –  prash Apr 12 at 10:10
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I think that this is a BrE/AmE distinction; in the US, we'd never say "an Indian", we'd just say "Indian" - the adjective stands in for the implicit noun of 'Food' that follows. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Apr 12 at 14:35
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(Oh, and "American" as a cuisine absolutely exists. So it's definitely not that. This answer is pretty much just wrong.) –  LessPop_MoreFizz Apr 12 at 14:43
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@LessPop_MoreFizz, no, it doesn’t matter whether the implicit noun is plural or singular—in fact, I cannot think of a single example where the noun implied is plural. What makes the difference is whether the implicit noun is a count noun or not. In BrE, count nouns like ‘meal’, ‘dinner’, ‘takeaway’, etc. are often implied, while in AmE, the implied noun is basically always the mass noun ‘food’. But the whole article vs. non-article thing is really quite incidental to the question to begin with. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 14 at 14:27
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@janus it's not incidental at all... the whole joke hinges on it. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Apr 14 at 14:28

It's playing off the fact that the plural for persons from China and the adjective to describe things that are from China are the same; it's essentially a pun.

Americans can eat Chinese because we often refer to cuisine by its preceding adjective and allow the noun to drop implicitly. Similarly, you'd see "Americans can eat Indian" or "Americans can eat Mexican". In all cases, the implication is "Americans can eat Chinese [food]", or "Americans can eat Mexican [food]"

Chinese can't eat Americans because "Americans" isn't an adjective anymore but a plural noun. Chinese would simply eat American. As with the prior example however, you'd never see "Americans can eat Indians" or "Americans can eat Mexicans". (And Americans eat American all the time as well!)

TL;DR It's a pun on the peculiar homophones that can result from certain demonyms which, in english, don't take on a standard plural form. Other examples would include Japanese, and British

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This is not really a matter of demonyms or not demonyms, but a matter of adjective-derived nouns in general. Nouns derived from some adjectival types (like -an and -ic) have plural forms, while nouns derived from other types (like -ish and -ese) do not. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 12 at 15:07
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@JanusBahsJacquet Yes, and the specific adjective derived nouns in question here, happen to be demonyms. Sure, you could come up with similar puns for other adjective-derived nouns that aren't Demonyms, but those aren't what were asked about. :P –  LessPop_MoreFizz Apr 12 at 15:09

It's not about being an adjective or not, being in a plural form or not, it is all about a particular figure of speech.

We call this a metonymy.

From Wikipedia

Metonymy (/mɨˈtɒnɨmi/ mi-TONN-ə-mee)1 is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept

Metonymy in English became sort of "bounded" to the language. I mean that nobody would ever look at you strangely after saying "Let's eat Chinese", because we all know you won't eat Chinese people but Chinese food !

Guess what now ? You are using tons of these things in your everyday life !

  • Let's drink a glass
  • The White House created a new law
  • The restaurant was nice with us
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