14

What is the origin of using the word "grasshopper" as a term for a neophyte or trainee? The most reliable reference I have is Urban Dictionary, who claims that it is from a 1970's television series called Kung Fu.

I would also be curious to know if this is a term which appears only in American English, or in other countries as well.

3
  • 2
    I always assumed the Kung Fu references used in answers below relied on the original idiom Knee high to a grasshopper. Dec 2, 2014 at 14:00
  • Doesn't that just mean you're short?
    – Preston
    Dec 2, 2014 at 21:39
  • 1
    @PrestonFitzgerald Knee-high to an adult human puts you at about 18 inches in height. It means you're young, a child.
    – ChrisW
    Dec 2, 2014 at 21:43

3 Answers 3

22

Kung Fu is indeed the source of this expression. Kung Fu made extensive use of flashbacks to the childhood of the protagonist, Caine, as he learned martial arts from his teacher Master Po, who called his young student Grasshopper as a term of affection. It is mostly used humorously, as a lighthearted comparison of the relationship between the speaker and their less experienced listener with that of wise Master Po and his inexperienced student.

The younger generation might be more likely to use the neologism padawan, which was used similarly in the Star Wars prequels as a name used by Jedi masters for their own young students.

3
  • 1
    I read a written reference to "grasshopper" as a neophyte about five years ago. I have not heard it in speech. +1 for "Padawan" coming into focus as "Grasshopper" fades with age.
    – rajah9
    Dec 2, 2014 at 4:16
  • 1
    First time when i heard "grasshopper" was around 1997 when game Shadow Warrior was released. Sometimes main character commented "You are tiny grasshopper."... now finally i know meaning. Dec 2, 2014 at 10:27
  • Yep, the term "grasshopper" has been around since the old Kung Fu series. Whether they got the term from elsewhere I can't say, but I know I've heard it off and on (often used with a slight bow and a fake Chinese accent) ever since (though not as much in the past 20 years as before).
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 2, 2014 at 19:45
11

Your Kung Fu reference is spot on.

Here's a quote from Wikipedia concerning the sobriquet Grasshopper.

One of his first instructors was the blind master named Po. Po considered Caine his favorite pupil and behaved more like an elderly grandfather. Caine was given the nickname "Grasshopper" by Master Po. The reference was from an exchange where the still ignorant young Caine asked the old blind master how he could function without seeing. Po asked Caine to close his eyes and describe what he could hear. Caine explained that he could hear the water flowing in a nearby fountain and birds in a nearby cage. Po then asked if Caine could hear his own heartbeat or the grasshopper at his feet (Caine hadn't noticed the insect until that moment). Incredulous, Caine asked Po, "Old man – how is it that you hear these things?" Po's reply was, "Young man, how is it that you do not?" From that point on, Po affectionately called Caine "Grasshopper".

I suppose that calling an apprentice might be found in any country that ran the Kung Fu series.

4
  • 1
    I've certainly heard it used in England - but the show didn't see much in the way of reruns, so you would probably have to be a child of the 70's to be familiar with it. If you search for Kung Fu and add the name of the star (David Carradine, later Bill in Kill Bill) you can find more about it and a few bits on [Youtube] (youtube.com/watch?v=A2YS6KVrQqc)
    – richardb
    Dec 2, 2014 at 11:47
  • @richardb: I know plenty of people born far later than the 1970s who are familiar with Kung Fu. You don't need live reruns to watch it :P Dec 2, 2014 at 15:31
  • Just so. People who are not familiar with Star Trek might still know of mind melds and "Beam me up." Grasshopper, as a meme, would spread by imitation. The comment from @DavorMlinaric indicates that he had heard it in 1997 without knowing its origin. And it seems like the OP has also heard it, but had to look up its origin.
    – rajah9
    Dec 2, 2014 at 16:35
  • 1
    I'm guessing that the Grasshopper usage would spread more quickly in countries where it had reruns in syndication or where Kung Fu DVDs had been sold.
    – rajah9
    Dec 2, 2014 at 16:37
-1

Yes. It's from the original Kung Fu series, originating when Master Po mentions the grasshopper at Caine's feet (a lesson in observation going beyond merely seeing and such) I believe it happened in the pilot episode, and frequently throughout their flashback interactions.

It's been mocked in popular culture many times since. It's unfortunate. Those characters definitely deserve much better than ignorant attempts at humor.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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