china marker/chinagraph

Sometimes I find myself censoring myself before I use a word just because I have a feeling that it might be an Americanism. (I know I've blogged about this feeling before--but I can't find where!) The thing is, I'm not entirely sure why I get that feeling about words I've never used (nor heard the equivalents of) in the UK before. Nevertheless, it's pretty reliable. And thus it was when I went into a stationer's and said:
I'm not sure if this is what you call them, but I'm looking for what I would call a (AmE) china marker.
I left it to my accent to tell the (AmE) sales clerk/(BrE) shop assistant why I might call it something different than they would. And this person surmised that I was talking about a BrE chinagraph (pencil). (These things are also called grease pencils in AmE.)

Unfortunately, this particular shop, part of a chain, had no such things, no matter what they called them, and they sent me off to the local stationer/art supply shop. By the time I got there, of course, I had forgotten the word chinagraph and so I repeated my question in the same way...only to be sent to another counter, only to be told that they were out of chinagraphs. What's a girl (who wants to write on her glass storage jars, as pictured here) to do?

Thinking a bit more about why I was so sure that the British would not say china marker, I decided it was probably because it's so common for stationery/office supplies to have different names in AmE and BrE. Among the more common of these:


ballpoint (pen)
[also the generic term in BrE]

[old proprietary name]
paper cutter

(blackboard) eraser

(pencil) eraser

thumb tacks

drawing pins
bulletin board

notice board

Then again, the majority of office supplies in any office supply catalog(ue) do have the same names in both countries. So...why have such a strong feeling that china marker would not be the local word? My only remaining hypothesis is that I had heard chinagraph at some point, but the memory only exists at some subconscious level.


  1. As an American speaker, I do have to admit that I've never heard the phrase "china markers." I'm not sure if it's for generational or dialectical reasons (I'm from the Western U.S.). For me, they are colo(u)red or charcoal pencils.

  2. I've never heard the phrase 'china markers'. I have heard 'wax pencils' though.

    I don't know what you call 'Dry Erase Markers', but I believe they would work for what you're looking for.

  3. The Wikipedia article is at "grease pencil", not marked as American. To me a "marker" has to be felt-tipped; maybe that's what set your self-censor tingling, Lynne?

    I've always said and heard "thumb tack" in Ireland.

    "ballpoint" may be the generic and formal name, but "biro" [sic] is probably still more common informally; like "personal stereo cassette player" vs "Walkman" (back in the day) though perhaps not as markedly as for that pair.

    "bulletin board" is one of many terms that are Americanisms in the original sense but global standards in computer terminology. For Yanks it's a natural metaphorical extension; for the rest of us it's an arbitrary piece of jargon to be learnt. The price of failure to innovate, I guess.

  4. mollymooly: your "bulletin board" example in the computer sense reminds me of "sandbox": natural extension for Americans, computer jargon for British.

  5. Following up on mollymooly's last point, in some ways it's better to be on the other side, for example with email.

    While the word "mail" meaning "send an email" is perhaps slightly more natural for Americans to use, just like with "bulletin board", we also have to worry about confusing it with the old-fashioned kind of mail. For example, I (an American) might like to say "I'll send you a copy of my paper when I get home". But that could mean by email or by usual mail, so to be clear I'd like to use "mail" instead of "send". But I can't really say "I'll mail you a copy..." because people might still think I mean email. So now sometimes I'll say "I'll post you a copy..." to make it completely clear. But that doesn't feel natural when I'm talking to other Americans. The other alternative is something like "I'll send you... in the regular mail." The result is that I quietly envy people for whom "mail" and "post" mean different things.

    So US hegemony can have a blowback effect.

  6. It's so funny that this should show up today, as I just yesterday had to look up chinagraph (people are marking plants at their allotment).

    James, what you need is to know the word "snail mail"

  7. In my UK experience to date (Glasgow), I think I've noticed a tendency to say 'pens' in preference of 'markers' in general, but I'm not sure whether this is real or an illusion. The feeling has been strong enough for me to stop using the word 'markers' in my tutorials... Any insights?

  8. I was just about to say that since, in my experience of BrE, markers are normally called "marker pens" this may impede their being used for pencils.

    "Chinagraph" actually sounds a bit odd to me (a BrE speaker) - it has that clunky spatchcock sound of a trade name. Could it have been? If not, I may use it. "ChinaGraf - Prince of Pencils", perhaps.

  9. On the subject of computer jargon, which seems to have appeared in the comments, I've noticed what looks like a reverse example (wordplay in Br and possibly jargon in Am) - blogroll. Does this conjure up any images to AmE speakers beyond the standard blogging context? It must have been either a global practical joke on behalf of some UK geek, or an unfortunate American coinage causing unintended sniggers across the pond.

  10. Haha, turns out it was the latter - fantastic.

    From Wiktionary
    Blogroll: from blog + logrolling
    Logrolling: Mutual recommendation of friends' or colleagues' services or products. Commonly used in the context of book recommendations in literary reviews etc.

    As to the UK meaning I was talking about:

    bogroll: A roll of toilet paper.

  11. I (BrEng) haven't heard 'a chinagraph' on its own. The only time I've used the things was in school science lessons a good 15 years ago, and they were always 'chinagraph pencils' - the 'chinagraph' firmly adjectival.

    I'd probably use a CD marker pen or similar if I had to write on a glass jar, though. (Dry Erase Markers, Loribeth, are probably dry-wipe pens/markers or whiteboard markers, but would wipe off on your hands pretty easily in handling the jars.)

    And I'd use a 'blackboard rubber', not a 'duster' (if I ever saw a blackboard).

  12. The OED's first use of chinagraph is from Russell Hill - yes, an American - our failure to innovate appears to cover pencils, too, mollymooly - although he was, I think, with the British 8th Army at the time, so we may have infected him.

    They have a use from The Listener in 1969 with a cap C, so I'm not the first to think it sounds like a trade name.

  13. This New Englander had never heard of either China marker or chinagraph, but having worked with many a grease pencil in restaurants, I suggest that you might try a restaurant supply house for these items.

  14. The thing that baffled me when working in an American office was the way all the notepads were yellow. This is, I suppose, a 'yellow legal pad' and no doubt is easier on the eyes if you are hung over. I also (of course) banged my head on the ceiling when going up a narrow flight of stairs when asked to fetch something from the third floor. I had forgotten that US floor numbers start at 1. (The office building had been converted from an old house in central Philadephia, and the stairs went on going up, so I carried on, but they had been blocked off by a low ceiling.)

  15. I think Lynne missed an important (and in this case probably relevant) stationary name difference.

    In the US a seemingly generic term (though a Trademark)for a marker pen seems to be "Sharpie".
    I'm not sure such a brand derived term exists in the UK. The British equivalent of Sharpie in the UK is Berol(actually the same company), but there are also other companies, such as Staedtler who have a reasonable piece of the Marker pie. These other brands are also available in the US, but Sharpie seems to be the commonly preferred name (A bit like Biro for ballpoint pen in the UK).

  16. Surely the British equivalent to "Sharpie" is "Magic Marker"? Or is that dated now? It's certainly what I grew up calling that type of pen.

    I don't believe I've ever heard of Chinagraph or China Markers before!

  17. (AmE) I would guess that "Magic Marker" is, indeed, dated. That used to be the only name for them I knew, but somewhere along the way they became simply "markers" (no cap), and I didn't even realize the magic had gone.

    "China marker" may also be dated, at least for some people. I know I've heard of it, but it's been a looong time.

  18. I think I'd definitely prefer grease pencil over china marker. I was talking to my father after reading this entry though and he prefers china marker. My stepmother agrees with me.

    Me and my stepmother were both raised in eastern MA. My Dad's from upstate NY and has much more professional contact with such things.

  19. 'Sharpie' is only for permanent markers, whereas 'Magic Marker' (to me, AmE) would mean the kind of markers a child might color with.

  20. Now you see for me (BrE), Magic Markers are purely for labelling, whereas a child would colour with a "felt pen". My daughter (b 1980) called felt pens "crayons", and what I called "crayons" her generation called "coloured pencils"....

  21. We called them "china markers" in my family, and I was fascinated by them as a child. (Still am, actually.) I loved how you didn't need a sharpener, you just peeled the perforated paper strip off them to reveal more "lead." I recall getting in a lot of trouble when I decided to see just how far the "lead" went and kept peeling til there was just a long, bare orange log... BTW, I never knew there were more colors than just orange and black. Looks like I need to make a trip to the local office supply store!

  22. Now here is something...
    Crayons and Colored Pencils being called the same thing? (@ Mrs Redboots)

    In the US, Crayons are wax (technically probably parafin or something like that, but in layman's terms, wax) while colored pencils (basically) are just like a graphite pencil, but they are...well...colored.

    If you call them crayons, and they call them colored pencils, what do they call what you would call colored pencils?

  23. I have a Sharpie® fine point permanent marker in my hand as I write this. All Sharpie® markers I have seen have pointed tips. Most other markers, permanent or not, have a chisel tip, which can be positioned to draw a narrower or wider line, appropriate for large items, but which is more difficult to write with. I would use a Sharpie® to label a CD-ROM disk, but probably not for a large poster.
    As you can see by my use of the Registered Trademark symbol Sharpie is a specific brand of marker, though probably the most common brand with a pointed tip.

  24. bill: My BrE experience of crayons and coloured pencils is the same as your US one. Blimey - are we speaking the same language for heaven's sake?

  25. Sharpies are the marker of choice for people signing autographs -- from what I hear, not that I'm frequently asked for mine -- because their ink adheres permanently to about any surface. For the same reason, they are strictly forbidden to be used by young children, who instead use "washable" markers (often the word "nontoxic" is also in the label, which makes you wonder). I think the "magic" part is or was a trademark.

    Never heard of china markers. Grease pens, yes. I was raised in New England.

  26. Most paper artists in the U.S. use the term "paper guillotine" so the jargon seems to have a somewhat mixed heritage.

    I think of the waxy things you use to write on glass or ceramics as "grease pencils."

    "Sharpies" are very specific and I've never seen them extended to anything other than the brand.

    And I think of a "magic marker" as being thicker and smellier than what I would normally call a "felt tip marker" or just "felt tip."

  27. In my experience cultural as well as linguistic differences enter into matters of stationery. It would never have occurred to me to use a chinagraph pencil to label a glass jar. I think I'd stick some kind of label on it, perhaps a self-adhesive paper one (or possibly write on it in marker pen, though the chinagraph might be more elegant). A few years ago it might have been Dymo tape, that embossable self-adhesive plastic tape which you never see now, no doubt replaced by those computer-printable self-adhesive paper strips. It didn't always work that well to the surface but printing the text with the special gadget was great fun.

    I was going to say that the chinagraph pencil is a pretty specialist item, something I've only ever used to mark the place in editing reel-to-reel audio tape (another moribund technology), much like sticks of charcoal for sketching, something you'd be unlikely to find in a supermarket or corner shop and would need get from an old-fashioned stationer's or a shop selling artist's materials. But thinking about it I suppose it's just a white or yellow coloured pencil, such as an artist would use. I suppose they contain some kind of wax instead of graphite in the normal pencil. (I don't suppose you can get coloured graphite, just different hardnesses.) It sharpens and writes differently to graphite and is harder to rub out/erase.

    So a coloured pencil is what I'd call that normally, unless perhaps it was white. It's basically the grown-up version of a crayon, a term I'd reserve for sticks of wax with a paper covering but no wood.

    I've recently become aware that the same thing exists for charcoal, ie a thick stick of graphite wrapped in paper, but I don't know what you'd call that -- perhaps a graphite crayon?

    Chinagraph does sound rather dated somehow, and to use coloured pencils for anything but artwork also seems old-fashioned. People used to mark up proofs or censor things in blue pencil, but I think ink now rules except where something needs to be rubbed out later, and the marker pen has replaced the lead pencil for rough marking or labelling except perhaps in carpentry and building.

    BTW a blackboard rubber (felt pad built into a wooden handle) is not the same thing as a blackboard duster (any piece of cloth used to clean a blackboard).

  28. Blackboard rubber just cracks me up. Rubber for eraser makes perfect sense, but the metaphorical extension makes it weird.

    Lynne, thanks for reminding me about "drawing pins". This is one I must have noted at some point and then completely forgotten. So I can surmise where the impulse to believe there's another term, without being able to remember it, comes from.

  29. So...why have such a strong feeling that china marker would not be the local word?
    My rule of thumb is: if it wasn't around in 1776, it probably has different terminology in British and U.S. English.

  30. Is perhaps "crayons" meaning colored pencils perhaps becoming less common in BrE? In one of Shirley Hughes' Alfie books (pub 1983), Alfie gives his friend crayons as a birthday present, and it is clear in the picture that they are what I would call (AmE) colored pencils. However, whenever my children's schools (between the late 1990s and now) have wanted them to bring colored pencils, they haven't asked for crayons, they have asked for "coloring pencils" (to introduce a separate difference).

  31. Alexis: I'm no expert, but we (BrE)talk of "rubbing something out" to mean erasing it. I think the word "rubber" may possibly have come from the action and not the material. The "blackboard rubber" makes much more sense (to me at least).

  32. In AmE, a Blackboard Rubber would sound much more like a person who rubs blackboards, than the thing you hold to erase chalk.

    Of course that would be true of "Pencil Rubber" too.

  33. Perhaps this is already well-known, but for the record: "Rubber" is AmE slang for "condom". I'll never forget the look on our office manager's face when a new Australian employee presented her list of requested office supplies.

  34. Another difference exists when referring to correction fluid.

    In the UK, most people would call the product tippex (Tipp-Ex being a brand name) irrespective of the manufacturer. It also became a verb, with millions of pupils "tippexing out" their mistakes.

    I believe that a similar situation occurred in America, only with a different manufacturer's name replacing the generic term ("White-Out"?).

  35. Do people still use Tippex? In my personal experience, I transitioned from Tippex to double-headed correcting pens to just crossing out to word processing during my education.

  36. Some people would call correction fluid "Snopake" (the "sno" pronounced "snow") and use the form "snopaking it out" . I thought Tipp-ex and Snopake went out with the typewriter (an early form of mechanical writer, for those of tender years), but Snopake the trade name still appears on other forms of stationery. (I have a Snopake FlatBinder near me as I speak, and they are apparently alive and well at

  37. Returning to the original subject, "Chinagraph" is indeed an old tradename, currently owned by Royal Sovereign of London, but is used generically to describe similiar products by other manufacturers. When I was in the military we used chinagraphs (without the 'pencil' bit) extensively for temporarily marking laminated maps and display boards. The type we used were like a fat propelling pencil into which replaceable chinagraph "leads" could be inserted. These were fairly temperature-sensitive, being crumbly in cold weather, and smeary , semi-liquid in hot conditions.

  38. From context, I take "propelling pencil" to be what I (AmE) would call a mechanical pencil. Is that correct?

  39. Andy J's description of the temperature-sensitive behaviour of chinagraph pencils confirms to me that they are indeed wax crayons in a wooden sleeve. I would feel the application of the word crayon to a coloured pencil to be old-fashioned.

    In fact his story also shows to me that the things themselves are outdated. Surely today it would be a dry marker -- as usual, the more wasteful and polluting throwaway technology wins...

    A recent visit to a large branch of the stationery chain WH Smith in Glasgow turned up "coloured pencils" galore and (when aimed at children) "colouring pencils" but nothing calling itself Chinagraph.

    The web seems to show the existence of the term "polychromo" but that might be just Faber-Castell's term.

    Yes, a "propelling pencil" is a mechanical pencil.

  40. Sorry, the truncated URL should end

    These paper-wrapped "grease pencils" are different though:

    Never seen them myself, or heard the term.

  41. Way, way upthread, one of you commented about yellow legal pads.

    I don't know what's done in Britain, or even in the US out of NYC, but from the first grade (age six) upwards I was firmly taught that we write on yellow paper for a FIRST draft and white paper for a FINAL draft. They didn't end that convention until I entered high school in the 9th grade.

    Of course, by the time I entered high school they assumed we were doing our first, second, and so on through final drafts on the computer, so why they still sell yellow pads I'm not sure. It's probably easier to read for people with visual problems, but most people don't fall into that category.

  42. Like others, I think that the word "chinagraph" and the object itself are both quite rare, at least in civilian life. I (BrE) didn't encounter either until I was 18 years and 7 months old.

    I have had a chinagraph pencil of the propelling type described by Andy J in my toolbox for many years, as it is useful for marking glazed tiles, but I have hardly ever heard anyone use the word.

  43. The term "rubber" for a pencil eraser came indeed from the verb "to rub."

    The term "rubber" for the elastic substance came from its use in rubber erasers.

    Verb "to rub" --> rubber = eraser --> rubber = elastic substance used in erasers.

  44. I bought a Chinagraph pencil when I was (briefly) a science student in 1970, for putting temporary marks on laboratory glassware. I then gave up science for librarianship, so I've never used one since. However, I do use Tipp-Ex or similar, for altering the classmarks written inside library books when they need to be reclassified!

  45. Never heard of either pencil, but then I can't remember ever having to write on glass.
    Other "office supply" things I've noticed are:

    The British 'sellotape' becomes Scotch tape in the US; a British 'blackboard', while understood, is more commonly called a "chalkboard" in the US, and "eraser" is pronounced with a soft "s" rather than a "z" sound which I would say in my English accent. So even tho' I might use the correct word in the States, they still laugh at me.

  46. Maybe this is just another case of New Englander dialectal fence sitting, but I grew saying blackboard. Well really we just called it the board, but generally that was expanded as blackboard, not chalkboard.

  47. Interesting that both the (American) novel and (American) film were called "Blackboard Jungle"

  48. I thought "chalkboard" was the preferred term here in the UK these days, partly because they are not necessarily black (we had one when I was at school in the 1960s that was dark green!), but mostly because some people find the word "black", when referring to anything other than skin colour, rather offensive.

  49. I heard blackboard much more often than I heard chalkboard growing up in the 80's-90's (in the American midwest and then south). By the time I got to high school though, dry erase boards had replaced chalkboards in most classrooms. In my college classes these days you hear 'dry erase board' and (rarely) 'white board', but it seems like most people take the easy way out and just say 'the board' now.

  50. Yeah, it's just not correct to say that 'chalkboard' is AmE and 'blackboard' is BrE. 'Blackboard' is what it's normally called in AmE. When I was a kid, 'chalkboard' was sometimes used when (a) the board was green rather than black (quite common in my schools, or (b) sometimes for slates that were not attached to the wall.

    'Chalkboard' is not unheard-of in the UK, as evidenced by this site. I'd check it in the OED, but our library's website seems to be down at the moment...

  51. AmE here. I've never heard "China marker" either. But my dad used grease pencils daily ate work. I agree that a "marker" must be felt-tipped.

    Also, I am 30 years old, but I absolutely could not walk into an office supply store and ask to purchase "a rubber" without giggling. When I moved to England, my assistant asked me if I needed a rubber and my eyeballs popped out of my head.

  52. I use markers (felt-tip pens?) to write on my jars and bags. However, "Dry Erase Markers" will not do (as they are, well, dry erasable); it is best to use those intended for writing on CDs and DVDs.

    Incidentaly, in Croatian a felt-tip pen is called "flomaster", probably a corruption of "flow master", which was, I suppose, the brand or model name we first got in touch with.

    How about the word "crayon"? Isn't it a synonym for "grease pencil"? Is there some subtle difference, or is the meaning of "crayon" more general?

    BTW, I just stumbled upon a link to this delightful blog in VisualThesaurus newsletter. Now I have another most enjoyable way to procrastinate.

  53. I'd assume it's because we don't really have markers at all in the UK. We have marker pens, but more often just felt-tips or board pens or whiteboard pens and so on.

  54. Just to add another term to the list, I was watching a magic trick video yesterday (filmed 1996) and the American magician referred to "a Listo pencil, also called a grease pencil".

    I have seen the brand name Listo before in American drawing/design/cartooning texts.

  55. Odd to learn that in BrE it's a "guillotine". In French, home of the guillotine, it's called a "massicot".

  56. Re: Crayons = Coloured Pencils

    Since moving to the UK I've found the random use of French words (AmE zucchini = BrE courgette, etc), so it's possible that coloured pencils are called "crayons" because the French word "crayon" = "pencil". Stranger things have happened in language.

  57. - couldn't resist commenting on double whammy of stationery AND linguistics!

    - definitely just 'chinagraph' or at a stretch 'china pencil' for me ... I've used them in film editing and my Mum used them to write on her glass storage jars!
    - dry eraser markers are 'board pens' for me
    - magic markers - a specific type of short stubby permanent marker (as used by art departments in the good old days before computers) They always smelled very strongly of pear drops/acetone and come in gazillion colours -- ah sweet memories --
    - for me definitely a blackboard or board rubber .. a duster is a square of (usually) yellow cloth for .. dusting and polishing - so duster for me has a much lighter, less 'erasing' connotation.

    Ho Hum ... words are just great innit?


  58. Colored pencils and crayons basically use the same marking technology, namely colored wax. The former have the wax wrapped in wood like ordinary (a.k.a. lead) pencils; the latter are wrapped in paper. Consequently, it's not too surprising that the names have been used semi-interchangeably.

  59. I am just writing a power point presentation of my time in the RN, I came on the web to confirm my spelling andwas pleased to see this piece about chinagraph pencils. We used these in the "Op's" room onboard, I also remember them being used as make up in the competitions held whilst on Beira patrol back in the 60's. Remember RN ships were all male in those days, Miss Brighton never looked so ugly even with a liberal covering of "Chanagraph!

  60. I'm fairly sure many of those words used to have the simpler (modern BrE) form in America as well. For instance, "India rubber" used to be used for modern "eraser" in America until at least the early 20th century. Pins for tacks was also used, though I don't know for how long.

  61. Yesturday, in California I bought a set of white and black grease pencils in a set. I've never seen them in colors! Carpenters use them.

    What do you use the colors for? ART? Can you share?

    Very interesting!

  62. I use colored china markers (or grease pencils, never chinagraphs; I'm an american) for tracing pattern pieces onto fabric. (Since the lines get left on the cut out scraps, it's no problem with staining.) I also use them for marking glass and plastic. I also, er, sharpen them. With a pencil sharpener intended for colored pencils (which makes a shorter point than most intended for wood-cased pencils.) Never quite got the string pulling down.

  63. In my experience, Chinagraph and China Marker are very different.
    Chinagraph is much softer than China Marker and can be used much more easily to write small text that is distinct. China Marker tends to leave fainter text unless you press hard in which case you risk breaking the point off.
    I use them for making temporary marks on forms in plastic sleeves.

  64. So am I guessing correctly that England does not have Crayola Crayons? That was my favo(u)rite thing when I was a kids.

  65. Mindy

    WhenI was young we had 'wax crayons' — or rather 'crayons' since we knew no other sort.

  66. Only reason why I'm here. Trying to by a Grease Pencil at Staples office supply yesterday. Staff had no clue what in the world I was talking about. I told her they must be under 30 year old or something as We used Grease Pencils in grade school for the Over Head and in our work books. Final figured out the term China Marker and they had them. She said the only people that normal buy them ares restaurants and people installing tile. Both the use I'm familiar with and the main purpose of buying more grease pencils aka china markers.

  67. BrE (Scot, 60+). As children, we had wax crayons, usually shortened to just crayons, and yes, Crayola was the commonest brand. They were used for drawing and colouring. Having never come across the term “grease pencil”, I would have assumed it meant wax crayon, but I don’t think the ones I used as a child would write very well on glass or china.

    To write on hard surfaces, I would use a felt-tip pen (never just felt pen), and mentally correct myself to felt tippED, with or without a hyphen. A felt-tip with a chisel point I would call a marker PEN. If it was difficult to erase (maybe needing to be wiped with a solvent) I would probably use the term “indelible”.

    For me it’s a blackboard if you use chalk, a whiteboard if you use a marker pen. And it’s always a blackboard duster, whether or not you use a “household” yellow closet square, or the felt block with a wooden handle that teachers threw at inattentive pupils.

    Different commenters have usd stationery and office supply store interchangeably. Does AmE use stationery, and is the difference between stationery and stationary a spelling trap for the unwary?


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