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View Full Version : Why is it called a 'Chinese Fire Drill'?


mouthbreather
06-07-2001, 08:04 AM
At http://www.word-detective.com, they have this to say about "Chinese Fire Drill":...the use of the modifier "Chinese" in the derogatory sense of "confused, disorganized or inferior" dates back to the time of World War I and was largely a British invention. Other "Chinese" slurs of the day included "Chinese ace" (an inept aviator), "Chinese national anthem" (an explosion) and "Chinese puzzle" (one with no solution)...

...Aside from being a synonym for "extreme confusion," incidentally, "Chinese fire drill" is also the popular name for a prank long-beloved of college students, wherein 4 or 5 of the little matriculators stop their car at a red light, jump out, run around the car and then hop back in...The earliest written citation for "Chinese fire drill" reported by the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates only to 1952, although William Safire is quoted as maintaining that it was commonly heard in Brooklyn just after World War I...

...In any case, "Chinese fire drill," though today almost always used without malice, is indeed an insult to those of Chinese ancestry, and deserves to be permanently retired.


I don't understand how the term "Chinese fire drill" applies to the car at the stoplight hijinks. Any help here?

Morrison's Lament
06-07-2001, 08:11 AM
I don't see the problem with the explanation...

A fire drill involves everyone rushing into a car as fast as they can. Obviously you have to be outside the car first, hence the running out of it before piling back in.

I believe the "Chinese" part was explained, too.

--- G. Raven

Morrison's Lament
06-07-2001, 08:15 AM
Oh, wait, I see it now.

I believe the fire drill in question is actually the one that firemen perform in order to test their response time, not an evacuation of a building.

--- G. Raven

mouthbreather
06-07-2001, 08:17 AM
Originally posted by Morrison's Lament
I don't see the problem with the explanation...

A fire drill involves everyone rushing into a car as fast as they can.

It does? Every fire drill I've ever been a part of invloved an alarm going off and getting a safe distance away from a building.

Morrison's Lament
06-07-2001, 08:20 AM
Hence my second post :D

mouthbreather
06-07-2001, 08:21 AM
I believe the fire drill in question is actually the one that firemen perform in order to test their response time, not an evacuation of a building.

That makes some sense, although I've never heard "fire drill" used in that context before.

Morrison's Lament
06-07-2001, 08:26 AM
Here comes another wild guess, look out below! :D

I'd assume that when fire brigades were in their infancy, people had other things to worry about than sounding alarms twice a month to see if everyone knew how to evacuate their little shacks.

Soooo.... that leads me to the conclusion that the term "fire drill" was first put in use by actual firemen preparing to do battle with the elements. Later on people started being more safety conscious and fire drills were introduced as a means of testing the response time of the victims, as opposed to just the rescuers.

How's that for baseless assumptions and guesswork? :D

--- G. Raven

kniz
06-07-2001, 11:59 AM
I recall that while watching Seven Years in Tibet something happened that reminded me of the phrase in question.

http://www.cinema1.com/movies97/sevenyearsintibet/us.html

panamajack
06-07-2001, 01:18 PM
I always interpreted it as an exercise in fruitless evacuation and preparedness :

The drill is to evacuate the car. Everyone runs away from the car in order to get to a safe place to get away -- namely, the car. Whenever I've done this (and I haven't done it since before college) you couldn't end up in the seat you started at, since that was the dangerous place you were trying to get away from.

kniz, what exactly happened in the movie? I didn't pick it up from the link.

China Guy
06-07-2001, 07:50 PM
chinese fire drill was popular among high school students in the 50's through 70's at least. Certainly, I partook of it with my buddies in the late 70's. One was featured in the movie American grafitti

Pull up to an intersection, preferabbly a real busy on a fri or sat night. Everyone jumps out of the car, runs around and gets back in a different seat. Sometimes two cars are involved.

I can only say that the origen of the phrase was some westerner coming to Asia for the first time and not understanding the SEEMINGLY chaotic bustle that typifies night markets and a lot of the street life in Asian metropolis'

partly_warmer
06-08-2001, 07:09 AM
Originally posted by mouthbreather
I don't understand how the term "Chinese fire drill" applies to the car at the stoplight hijinks. Any help here?

No need to haul out the Oxford English Dictionary, here. We accepted that it was called a "Chinese fire drill" because there wasn't any recognizable, known reason for doing it. The whole idea was that even if we didn't understand it, it made sense to someone. So we did it. It was a lot like a million other adult rules that seemed to make no sense. (It almost goes without saying that no disrespect for the Chinese was implied.)

friedo
06-08-2001, 07:46 AM
We used to do Chinese fire drills at railroad crossings when a train was coming. The extra time you get from a long freight train allows for additional antics including, but not limited to, jumping on top of the car, jumping on top of other people's cars, removing gentitalia from your trousers, and other miscellaneous hijinks.

I always assumed the "fire drill" part comes from the fact that you are evacuating the vehicle, as you would evacuate a building during a fire drill. The "Chinese" part comes from the nonsense that necessarily ensues.