Sign up ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

While looking up the history of kip, I realized that the information about its origins is rather scant. The noun and verb to kip in BrEng is often said when a person wishes to take a short sleep or a quick nap. It's a colloquial expression and sounds very post-war Britain to my ears. Surprisingly, Etymonline completely ignores the word, listing only kipper. Wiktionary on the other hand comes to the rescue:

1760–70, probably related to Danish kippe (“dive, hovel, cheap inn”) and Middle Low German kiffe (“hovel”). From the same distant Germanic root as cove.

Noun kip (plural kips)
(informal, chiefly UK) A place to sleep; a rooming house; a bed.
(informal, chiefly UK) Sleep, snooze, nap, forty winks, doze. "I’m just going for my afternoon kip." (informal, chiefly UK) A very untidy house or room. (informal, chiefly UK, dated) A brothel.

But thanks to a comment left by Janus Bahs Jacquet it seems the connection between kippe and kip is quite strained.

... but kippe (as a noun) is beyond vanishingly rare in Danish. It’s a marginally common verb, meaning ‘tilt’ or ‘lop’ (or ‘dip’ as in ‘dipping the flag’), but according to the dictionary, the noun and the verb are unrelated. The noun is allegedly the same as kipe ‘basket for carrying grain’. Supposedly, the shift from ‘basket’ to ‘hovel’ was helped along by Middle Low German kiffe ‘hut’, whence it was used in compounds to refer specifically to a real dive or a brothel, which is when English presumably borrowed (?) it. Quite a shaky etymology overall, I’d say

So on my trek to find the truth, I came across the Chinese-English Dictionary of the vernacular or spoken language of Amoy by Carstairs Douglas, printed in 1873, London. The language Amoy or otherwise known as Xiamenese, Xiamen or Hokkien dialect, I believe gives some insight as to how kip was loaned to the British English language to mean a short sleep or nap. It says

Kip [R. hasty; urgent; in extremity].
tioh-kip, in very great haste; not willing to wait a moment, as in some very urgent matter.
kip-kip, very swift, like the demon of thunder [...] said also figuratively of anything to be done in great haste.
kip-sio, a small thin flat-bottomed earthen kettle for warming things quickly.

Could it be that Dutch sailors adopted this expression? I am blissfully unaware of Danish maritime history but I seem to remember reading somewhere that the Dutch traded with the Chinese, was it the 13th century or later? This in turn reminds me of the Italian explorer Marco Polo and his tales in China in The Travels of Marco Polo or, in Italian Il Milione ("The Million"). But in Italian the letter K is a foreign letter and I can think of no Italian words beginning with ch = /k/ which are remotely related to the meaning of haste, urgency or velocity.

Could kip therefore be a Chinese loanword in the Danish or English language?

share|improve this question
I don't speak a word of Hokkien, but I am guessing those entries represent at least two different words. Kip ‘hasty’ most likely corresponds to 急 ( in Mandarin) ‘hasty, urgent, rash’; tioh-kip to 着急 (zháojí) ‘worry, be anxious, overly eager, impetuous’; and kip-kip to 急急 (jíjí) ‘very urgent/swift/anxious’. Kip-sio, on the other hand, probably contains a completely unrelated kip (possibly 箕 ‘winnowing basket’, though I don't know if that originally ended in a -p). – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 18 '14 at 12:10
In Cantonese (which I do not speak), 急 is pronounced gàp. According to Wiktionary, 急急 ‘gàpgàp’ is the source of English ‘chop-chop’ (basically meaning ‘hurry up’.) If this same character with its Amoy (Taiwanese) pronunciation was also the source of ‘kip’, that would be an interesting coincidence. It seems unlikely, though. – neubau May 18 '14 at 14:02
The problem with this etymology is that kip just means sleep, not a quick sleep. It's not a very common word these days and sounds a bit dated although it would be understood. Typical usages: I'm looking for a place to kip. How much kip did you get last night? I had a quick kip this afternoon. I believe it's of Dutch origin. – user24964 May 18 '14 at 15:27
I am a Brit! I don't think I've contradicted myself ... the presence of quick supports my claim that kip, in itself, doesn't mean a short sleep but more of a casual one, perhaps not in one's normal bed, or after some disturbance from routine. It could equally apply to a particularly long and refreshing sleep. – user24964 May 18 '14 at 16:31
Following on my comment above, Hobson-Jobson mentions 'kip-kip' under the entry for 'chop-chop'. But of course it's not Mandarin, but Hokkien. Link here:… – neubau May 20 '14 at 13:31

2 Answers 2

Could the BE slang term ‘kip’ meaning to sleep be a borrowing from Hokkien? I searched Hobson/Jobson and came up with this:

CHOP-CHOP . Pigeon-English (or -Chinese) for 'Make haste! look sharp!' This is supposed to be from the Cantonese, pron. kăp-kăp, of what is in the Mandarin dialect kip-kip. In the Northern dialects kwai-kwai, 'quick-quick' is more usual (Bishop Moule). [Mr. Skeat compares the Malay chepat-chepat, 'quick-quick.']

The characters here, as Janus suggested, are most likely 急急. Hobson-Jobson is clearly mistaken in referring to ‘kip-kip’ as Mandarin rather than Hokkien. This entry might be read as saying that ‘chop-chop’ and ‘kip-kip’ were competing forms donated by different Chinese dialects/languages. However, it’s not clear if the latter was ever used in English or not.

In any case, if English had already borrowed a version of this Chinese word to mean ‘quick’ with no semantic shift, why would it re-borrow the same word from a different dialect to mean ‘sleep’? It seems highly unlikely. Generally, to establish a relationship of borrowing we would want to have three things: (A) a phonetic link, (B) a semantic link and (C) a context (a time and place where the donor and recipient languages would have been in contact.)

With ‘kip’ we have A, it seems, but even that could be challenged. Initial ‘k’ represents an aspirated stop in both English and pinyin, but in other Chinese dialects it might well be pronounced without aspiration and thus sound more like an English ‘g’. And how did Cantonese ‘gap’ become English ‘chop’? Sound change in borrowed words can be idiosyncratic.

Concerning B, any semantic link between ‘quick’ and ‘sleep’ would be forced. Did Chinese people in a 19th century treaty port who wanted to take a nap after lunch ever say ‘kip-kip’ to signify ‘just a short one’ to English people, who then misinterpreted the word to mean sleep? It seems too tenuous to take seriously.

Finally C, the context. Where would the hypothetical encounter in B have taken place, and at what point in time? The history of Chinese-Western contact is of course very complex. We might be talking about the south China coast in the 19th century. The main treaty ports frequented by English traders, at least before the country was ‘opened up’ after the 1840 Opium War, were Canton and Hong Kong. Since these are located in a Cantonese-speaking area, it’s probably safe to take Cantonese as the default donor language for loans into British English. However, other points of contact like Singapore would have had a different mix of dialect groups – generally for Southeast Asia the Hokkien communities were larger and more numerous than Cantonese ones, so the contact language might have been Hokkien. And so on.

The formal title of Hobson/Jobson is ‘Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases…’, but it actually covers ‘Oriental terms’ more broadly, not just South Asian ones. More about this dictionary here:

Hobson-Jobson definitively

TL/DR: No, ‘kip’ wasn’t borrowed from Chinese.

share|improve this answer
+1 for taking my question seriously and doing some thorough research but like TimLymington I think you've interpreted my question in the wrong light. I am not suggesting that kip was borrowed to mean quick/short sleep but rather kip was used as an adjective in front of the word sleep or nap. Might it not have started out as kip-sleep or kip-nap and then over time became clipped as kip? A foreign traveller might have asked for a kip meal (with the word meal said in Hokkein) to mean either a snack or just a plain bowl of rice or soup, i.e. a "quick meal". – Mari-Lou A May 21 '14 at 4:45
And what about the Danish kippe? I know there were Danish and British seafarers who traded with the Chinese three, four and five hundred years ago. – Mari-Lou A May 21 '14 at 4:50
The trouble is, 急 is not really a neutral word for something fast or short in duration. Most of its uses in compounds involve suddenness, urgency, anxiety or nervousness. @Janus gave the example zhaoji ‘nervous’, which is probably the most common use. And this isn’t only in Mandarin - a Cantonese online dictionary I checked showed that it often appears in compounds meaning ‘emergency’ as in room or exit. – neubau May 21 '14 at 5:39
I’ve never seen it in combination with sleep or nap – wouldn’t a nervous, sudden or urgent nap would be a kind of oxymoron, barring some rare sleep disorder? The usual term for ‘siesta’ in Chinese includes the time of day – an afternoon nap. By the way, I hope my tone isn’t too severe here – it’s a fun question! – neubau May 21 '14 at 5:40
PS it strikes me as a military slang - has anyone looked in to that? – Joe Blow Jul 25 '14 at 9:35

The OED thinks the 'sleep/bed' sense comes from 'house of ill-fame', for which there is a 1766 citation (from the Vicar of Wakefield, of all places). There certainly was trade contact with China at that stage, both British and Dutch; but not among the urban masses who later used the word to mean 'sleep'. In addition, I don't really see how any of the Amoy meanings could transfer to `sleep'; I would think this is just another of the coincidences that English etymology is full of.

share|improve this answer
No, not sleep but a quick sleep, perhaps? There are so many words in Amoy with kip attached, I'm sure it would have been one of the first words merchants would have become familiarised with, don't you think? It's easy to pronounce, and it lends the idea of something fast, not lasting. – Mari-Lou A May 18 '14 at 12:09
It’s general practice in south China and Taiwan to take a siesta or afternoon nap. It might well have been a cultural sticking point in Chinese/Western interaction on the south China coast under colonial conditions. It wouldn’t be surprising then if the English adopted a native word to designate the practice, just as we call it a ‘siesta’. – neubau May 18 '14 at 14:12

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.