Chinese fire drill

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Popular in the United States during the 1960s,[1][2] a Chinese fire drill is a gag performed by a vehicle's occupants when stopped at a traffic light, especially when there is a need to change drivers or procure something from the trunk: Before the light changes to green, each occupant gets out, runs around the vehicle, and gets back inside (but not necessarily in his original seat). If one of the participants lags, the others may drive off without him.

Figuratively, a Chinese fire drill is an act—especially, any large, ineffective, and chaotic exercise—by a group of individuals that accomplishes nothing.

Less commonly, a Chinese fire drill may refer to a literal fire drill on a school bus or the aforementioned gag executed by misbehaving students on a stopped school bus,[3] sometimes involving use of the rear emergency exit.[4]


The term is alleged to have originated in the early 1900s, when a ship manned by British officers and a Chinese crew practiced a fire drill in the engine room. The bucket brigade drew water from the starboard side, took it to the engine room, and threw it onto the fire. A separate crew hauled the accumulated water to the main deck and heaved the water over the port side. The drill went according to plan until the orders became confused in translation. The bucket brigade began to draw the water from the starboard side, run over to the port side and then throw the water overboard, bypassing the engine room completely.[5]

Around the time of World War I, British English's adjective Chinese had a slang meaning of "confused, disorganized, or difficult to understand." Other examples include:

  • "Chinese puzzle," a puzzle with no or a hard-to-fathom solution[1]
  • "Chinese whispers," also known as "Telephone," a children's game in which a straightforward statement is shared through a line of players one player at a time until it reaches the end, often having been comically transformed along the way into a completely different statement.
  • "Chinese auction," a "penny social"
  • "Chinese national anthem," an explosion
  • "Chinese landing," a clumsy landing
  • "Chinese ace," an inept pilot, derived from the term One Wing Low (which sounds like a Chinese name), an aeronautical technique[1][2]


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