Reader Emily asks, “Why is it called a Chinese fire drill when everyone gets out of a stopped car, runs around, gets back in and continues on their trip?”
Using “Chinese” as a derogatory modifier to describe something as disorganized or confusing dates back to at least the first World War and maybe even to the earliest contacts between Europeans and the Chinese. British troops during World War I were known to refer to inept pilots as “Chinese aces,” rough landings and crashes as “Chinese landings,” and any confusing situation as a “Chinese fire drill.”
The origin of that last term isn’t well documented, but supposedly originates from an actual fire drill on an early 20th century British ship. The story goes that the ship’s British officers had their largely Chinese crew practicing the procedure for putting out an engine room fire. One bucket brigade drew water from the starboard side of the ship, brought it to the engine room and dumped it. A separate bucket brigade scooped up the dumped water and got rid of it by tossing it over the port side of the ship. At some point during the drill, the crews got their instructions confused, and began drawing water from one side of the boat and simply dumping it over the other, without ever getting to the engine room.
American soldiers fighting alongside the British in WWI and WWII brought the phrase back home, where it got assigned to the car game at some point. It’s first recorded in the 1970s, but may have been in use longer.