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Why Is Running Around a Stopped Car Called a Chinese Fire Drill?

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Happy Days Chinese Fire Drill Paramount Domestic Television origin

The Chinese fire drill from the intro on “Happy Days”
Photo: Paramount Domestic Television

There are many idioms in our language that your probably don’t know the origins of — including ones that, if you think about them, bear some peculiar phrasing. For instance, have you ever wondered where the term “Chinese fire drill” comes from? Where did we get this strange idiom to refer to an action — exiting, running around, and re-entering a halted car at a red light — that seemingly has nothing to do with fires or the Chinese?

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The possible origin of the phrase and act of the “Chinese fire drill”

According to research done by NPR, the word “Chinese” became a common derogatory attributive in the late 1800s and early 1900s, based in anti-Asian sentiment. Americans used this negative slang term to describe things that were confusing, chaotic, senseless, or poor quality. But, how did that modifier and its relation to a fire drill come to be associated with running around a car?

The most commonly attributed origin — though it’s not officially documented — involves a possibly real-life fire drill exercise on a British ship in the early 20th century. According to the tale, the Chinese crew misunderstood the British officers’ instructions to gather buckets of water to put out an imaginary engine fire. One group was supposed to gather water from the starboard side of the vessel and dump it in the engine room, while another group scooped up that water and disposed of it on the port side. The process — likely confused in translation or in disseminating its execution — resulted in crewmen drawing water from the starboard side, bypassing the engine room, and dumping it over the port side. Essentially, this Chinese fire drill was a circular, fruitless, disordered action — and thus the term found its meaning.

As far as the phrase’s association with automobiles specifically, even less documented. Around the 1960s, people began using it to describe auto accident scenes featuring mass confusion and hysteria. By the 1970s, people were replicating such scenes by exiting their car, running around, and re-entering it, making it a game to avoid being left behind. The activity was popularized during that time with its performance by the characters on Happy Days.

Now that we’ve potentially solved the origin of the Chinese fire drill, only one question remains: Will we still be able to have Chinese fire drills when we ride in self-driving cars?

Sources: Mental Floss, NPR

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