chinese whispers and telephone

Cathy wrote the other day to ask:
I've been watching "The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard" on Masterpiece Theatre in the US. [...] I noticed an interesting phrase Mrs. Pritchard used, "Chinese whispers." I thought at first she meant what Americans mean when we say children are playing telephone or whisper down the lane. Then I thought, in the context it was used in, that it wouldn't be appropriate to suggest the person was playing a child's game. Mrs. Pritchard's right hand man (I can't remember his title) has passed on a bit of gossip that was passed on through several people. Any thoughts?
Coincidentally, the night before, Better Half and I had been watching the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David (surprise, surprise) makes a faux pas in playing telephone at a party, and BH asked, 'That's Chinese whispers, right?' Chinese whispers and the telephone game are indeed names for the same game in BrE and AmE, respectively. (And this came up once before in the comments for a previous post.)

What has thrown Cathy off is the fact that Chinese whispers is much more likely to be used in an extended or metaphorical way than this sense of telephone is. This is probably not too surprising, since telephone has other senses that would make the metaphor less clear. The OED lists Russian scandal as having the same two senses as Chinese whispers (though I've only ever heard the latter):
(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
People disagree about whether Chinese whispers should be avoided due to racist connotations. It makes me a little uncomfy, but then I don't find myself needing to say it very often, so I don't worry about it too much. It also reminds me of an AmE term (at least I've not found a BrE speaker who knows it yet---but I haven't asked that many) for another silly pastime with an ethnically (BrE) dodgy name: the Chinese fire drill. Wikipedia describes it as:
A Chinese fire drill is a prank, or perhaps an expression of high spirits, that was popular in the United States during the 1960s. It is performed when a car is stopped at a red traffic light, at which point all of the car's occupants get out, run around the car, and return to their own (or go to other) seats. Chinese fire drills are sometimes executed when one needs to get something from the trunk of a car. Occasionally, if one of the participants is late to get inside the car, the others might drive off without him/her. People have reported this phenomenon as early as the 1940s, so it is possible that the phrase was current at the time, but simply was not written down that early.

The term is also used as a figure of speech to mean any large, ineffective, and chaotic exercise.
When I was a child (a bit later than the dates in the Wikipedia article), the driver never got involved--because the driver was Mom or Dad. But we'd try our luck and yell "Chinese fire drill!" and judge how much trouble we were going to get into for trying to do it before opening the car doors. It always sounded like a marvelous idea to my young mind, but I don't know that we ever executed a true Chinese fire drill.


  1. In old money:
    "I'm going to advance, please send reinforcements"
    "I'm going to a dance, please send three-and-fourpence".

  2. Another ethnically problematic name is "Mongolian clusterf***", a programming technique involving a large number of low-skilled programmers churning out huge volumes of code with the expectation that inconsistencies will be ironed out at a later stage: they rarely are. More generally, any attempt to solve a problem simply by throwing more resources at it without bothering to take thought.

    dearieme: my favorite such mishearing comes from the opening lines of the 1967 play "Hadrian VII" by Peter Luke, but is surely traditional:

    LANDLADY: "Mr. Rolfe! Mr. Rolfe!!"

    ROLFE: "Tickle your arse with a feather!"

    LANDLADY: "What's that""

    ROLFE: "Particularly nasty weather!"

    (Doesn't work at all in AmE, of course; we don't normally collapse "particularly" so, er, spectacularly.)

  3. I've long been curious if the Chinese have analogous expressions.

  4. I like the exchange on the hotel porch in Lolita.

    "Where the devil did you get her?"
    "I beg your pardon?"
    "I said: the weather is getting better."
    "Seems so."
    "Who's the lassie?"
    "My daughter."
    "You lie-she's not."
    "I beg your pardon?"
    "I said: July was hot. Where's her mother?"

    Not exactly the same, nor is the joke about the hard-of-hearing men on a train.

    "Is this Wembley?"
    "No it's Thursday."
    "Well, then, let's go have a drink."

  5. In French this is known as "le téléphone arabe" (the Arab [or Arabic] telephone). Do not know why.

  6. Mmm, when I read an American discussion of the rumour mill/grapevine, it says something about "like the Telephone game" couched in a manner that suggests the author has hand-stitched the analogy, rather than simply grabbing a cliché off the peg, as Brits do with "Chinese whispers". The analogy is with the incomprehensibility of Chinese to anglophones, rather than the inarticulacy of the Chinese themselves, so it's debatable who ought to feel offended.

  7. the incomprehensibility of Chinese to anglophones

    And that's ironic because in my experience Chinese diction is very clear with words separated so well that when a Chinese person is translating for me, I can easily hear the few words I know (like "bok choi"). It's not like listening to French, which I do know, but which all blends together so easily.

  8. The Chinese Firedrill is apparently alive and well on Web 2.0 video sites:

    There are even Chinese Firedrills carried out by Chinese (? or at least East Asian ethnicity) kids:

  9. I'm a BrE speaker and I know the term "Chinese Fire Drill". (Though some would argue that I'm an Irish English speaker as I come from Northern Ireland). My husband and his friends used to play this game in the early '90s until the night the police threatened to arrest them.

    I rarely heard either phrase - "Chinese whispers", "Chinese fire drill" - used that often. Unlike "Chinese wall", which is still commonly used by Northern Irish accountants and lawyers.

  10. In one of E. Nesbit's children's books, there's a reference to a game called "Russian Telegrams." Probably the same as "Russian Scandal"?

  11. Telegrams was a paper game...not sure about the russian part. Each person would write down the name of a recipient for the telegram, then fold over the paper and pass it on to the next person, who would write an address, and fold it over and pass it on, then a message, then a sender...and at the end everyone would throw them all into the middle, choose one, and read their "telegram" with much hilarity.

  12. Sounds like a game I used to love in my childhood, "Consequences", where a brief story about two people meeting is constructed in a similar manner.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)