This summer , many of us will be travelling and collecting another chop in our passport. That’s the Singaporean in me talking, but it is intelligible to Hongkongers, too: by “chop” I mean “passport stamp”.
The word is wonderfully evocative of the passage and contact of peoples and cultures in earlier times. From the Hindi chaap, meaning stamp, imprint, seal or brand, or instrument for stamping (used already in 17th-century colonial Indian English), the word entered English in the early 19th-century as chop, referring to a trademark – a consequence of trade of the linguistic kind during the British empire’s expansion into the Indian subcontinent. Merchants and civil servants travelling from British India to other outposts of the empire spread the word.
In Hong Kong English “chop” refers to a seal or a stamp. Many of us will be familiar with the need to place a company chop on an official document. And personal name chops – traditional seals carved with names in Chinese characters, used typically with red ink – are made, along with more modern rubber stamps, throughout the territory, most famously in Sheung Wan’s “Chop Alley”, with its lines of chopmakers’ stalls.
The word’s acquisition in Singapore English was probably reinforced by Malay; the dominant language during the period and the lingua franca of regional trade for centuries. The Malay got cap, meaning hallmark, trademark, business seal or “to imprint with ink or colour” from the Hindi chaap. While this meaning of chop is no longer found in contemporary British English (note: the chops in chopsticks and chop-chop have a different origin), chaap has today regained its currency in Indian English.
Back in the late 19th century, chop was also used to refer to something with class or validated as genuine or good – thus “first chop”, meaning first-class. This evolved in Australian and New Zealand English into the informal “not much chop”, meaning not so good.
There is a lesson here. Speakers of Singapore English and Hong Kong English are regularly advised not to say chop – as in company chop or please chop here – when we mean stamp, lest angmohs or gweilos misunderstand. But, really, it was the Brits, centuries ago, who introduced the English language into their territories where it was nativised. And today, these new Englishes have evolved to be wholly legitimate, and not of not much chop. So, please, do chop here.