Chinese Whispers, in British English, would be broadly recognised as a game that children play where the starting person whispers a word or phrase to another person. This is in turn whispered to another person. By chaining these together you will find that after several attempts the phrase has changed dramatically.

The wikipedia definition seems to have a similar definition. There is also an example of this in this classic episode of The Simpsons.

It is also a useful metaphor in business where a process has many steps, has many people involved, and the original message becomes confused.

However the term seems needlessly nationally dependent and I would like to avoid using it in particular.

In US English this game seems to be sometimes referred to as Telephone, however anecdotally in British English this name would not be widely recognised and potentially contextually confusing.

I am looking for a word, term or phrase that is similar in meaning to the metaphorical usage of the game.

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_whispers#Alternative_names could be useful. If the British don't know of another name for this game, you're probably just out of luck.
    – Juhasz
    Mar 17, 2021 at 21:52
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    You could call it "Pass it on", which is what children say when playing the game. Or maybe refer to it as a "Whispering Gallery" (though I think the point of the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul's Cathedral is that you hear the words clearly!) I don't think there's anything disparaging about the term "Chinese Whispers". It's certainly not as bad as "The China virus". We pass that on too! Mar 17, 2021 at 23:28
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    We (UK) also have French windows but we don't think of France when we pass through them. Mar 17, 2021 at 23:30
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    @YosefBaskin: See Is “Chinese whispers” racist? One post there that I agree with: Chinese Whispers is derived from the Chinese language being unintelligible to non-speakers, it’s origin has nothing to do with any negative judgement of Chinese people themselves. The phrase is similar to “It’s all Greek to me” or “Double Dutch”. It simply means the words in the game Chinese Whispers can’t be understood. Mar 18, 2021 at 15:44
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    There is also a version called "Rumors"... Mar 18, 2021 at 16:37

5 Answers 5


I was watching an Australian children's TV show called Bluey with my son the other day, and towards the end of Season 2 there is an episode called Dunny in which they play a game very similar to what I would call Chinese Whispers but they called it:

Pass it on

I'm not sure if it's an Australian term or one made up for the show. I note that Old Brixtonian referred to it as that too in their comment too.


If it's email or instant messaging, I like "email charades". Not the same as Chinese Whispers, but the same effect on the end user

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    To me "email charades" doesn't conjure up the same type of confusion that comes from Chinese whispers. Jul 14, 2022 at 15:56

The two correct terms that genuinely describe the phenomena we usually use the phrase for are :

imperfect data transmission over multiple iterations


infidelity in memetic replication

Shame they don't exactly roll of the tongue :)

Source: as a metaphor in Wikipedia: Chinese whispers


Grew up outside Boston, Worcester, MA, and no doubt I remember playing, 'telephone'. It starts innocently, and ends so far off base and someone always wound up crying.

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    This was mentioned in the question as a term that is used in US English. Do you have any evidence that it's also used in British English, like the question asks?
    – Laurel
    Jun 14 at 19:56

I was surprised to find that Chinese Whispers was relatively recent and had a previous, much older name name:


Chinese whispers n. = Russian scandal n.

1964 Guardian 13 Mar. 5/6 The children's game of ‘Chinese whispers’..in which whispered messages were passed around the room and the version which came back to the starting point bore no relation to the original message.

1984 T. Augarde Oxf. Guide Word Games xviii. 167 This is the basis for a game which ‘Professor Hoffmann’..calls Russian Gossip (also known as Chinese Whispers). The participants are arranged in a circle, and the first player whispers a story or a message to the next player, and so on round the circle. The original story is then compared with the final version, which has often changed beyond recognition.

Russian scandal n. (a) a game in which a whispered message, after being passed from player to player, is contrasted in its original and final versions (b) gossip inaccurately transmitted.

1861 Q. Rev. Apr. 348 There is a game called Russian Scandal, which is played in this fashion:—A. tells B. a brief narrative, which B. is to repeat to C., and C. to D., and so on.

1893 C. M. Yonge Girl's Little Bk. 17 Do not repeat it [sc. gossip]. You will probably make Russian scandal of it, and the next person will add to it.

I have never heard of "Russian Scandal" and assume that Russian was equally incomprehensible or that Russia was known for its unreliable rumours.

The latter is probably true as Russian humour had a fund of jokes based on inaccurate gossip.

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