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Is anyone able to explain the history behind this cheer?

At the face of it I'm unsure how this could be a cheer as translate to add/plus/apply and translates to oil/fat/grease you would think that 加油 would translate to Add oil

Most of my research showed that 加油 means a cheer or add oil but I've been unable to find any information as to how it translate into a cheer

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You saw my comment on cocowalla's question or is this just pure coincidence that you came up with a question about 加油? :) –  deutschZuid Dec 11 '13 at 20:07
I saw your comment :) but I already knew both the meaning and literal meaning of 加油 but your comment made me intrigued about how the phrase came to be –  50-3 Dec 11 '13 at 21:57
Actually it does translate to "add oil", see e.g. 加油站. You have never heard of 'figurative language'? –  Kovács Imre Jan 1 at 20:09
@KovácsImre Yes I have heard of Figurative language. Lit = Add oil && fig = {Cheering} which is covered above in the question –  50-3 Jan 2 at 0:54
@50-3 I find nothing in 加油 that would qualify it worth posting a question on it, it is far a normal term. –  Kovács Imre Jan 2 at 1:04
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3 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In a literal sense, 加油 means to step on the gas pedal when you drive a car.

Imagine what happens when you step on the gas pedal? More gasoline is added to the engine. What happens when more gasoline is added to the engine? The engine roarsssss!

If someone is having a hard time, they are like a car being stuck in the mud or a similar situation and unable to move forward. You would encourage them to "add in some gasoline" 加油!

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Hmm, nice explanation, but this doesn't provide what OP needs -- the history. –  Stan Dec 11 '13 at 8:20
I don't think there is much history behind this. If we trace it by its meaning, it will probably be in the period when automobile or gas station was introduced in China. –  tipsywacky Dec 13 '13 at 18:04
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According to one source, the expression originally comes from racing, used in its most literal sense. Another source claims that it has its roots in 明代, in a family of expressions including "火上加油". Both agree, though, that "加油" became a general expression of encouragement though its metaphorical usage becoming more and more closely tied to the word by itself. There is nothing in the meaning of the constituent characters themselves, however, that conveys the meaning of encouragement. Not all Chinese words can have their current meaning explained in terms of their parts (like 肥皂).

Source alleging origins in racing: http://zhidao.baidu.com/link?url=yiP6iAc0S-3VMztyCR8dID7OYfAskDbfmR8_jBZ0Zs9RXweUeYBLpzRYnNBNU5PyNcOLgyrxMKTaWGb49G3Xpa Source alleging origins in 明代: http://www.xiexingcun.com/yuwenjianshe/ywjs2009/ywjs20090125.html

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I've read the second source that claims it originates in Ming Dynasty. However I think the deduction "火上浇油=>加油" is quite far-fetched. First, in the references that it cites, i.e. 水浒传 and 鼓掌绝尘, 火上浇油 doesn't have the meaning like 加油. Second, what's worse, the reference for 在明代,已经发现了一个“加油2”的用例 is only 武宗逸史 -- obviously the author of that paper mistook the year of this novel. It was not written in Ming Dynasty but just in the years of Republic of China, so it cannot support that claim. –  Stan Dec 11 '13 at 6:53
Besides, The first source is also unconvincing. Enzo Ferrari is Italian, could his "Aggiunta di benzina" (if there had existed) be literally translated into Chinese "加油" and have the meaning "come on"? I can't believe it. –  Stan Dec 11 '13 at 7:07
I'm not particularly convinced either, but what I am absolutely sure of is that the real story is something or other in the same vein, and not reducible to the literal meaning of the phrase by itself. –  user238264 Dec 11 '13 at 7:55
The 加油 in "火上加油" is different from the cheer "加油". They pronounce differently too. –  tipsywacky Dec 13 '13 at 18:00
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In Thai, they use ‘chaiyo!’ [ไชโย] for cheers. Thai has borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Sanskrit and Pali, and ‘chaiyo’ is likely derived from the Sanskrit verb ‘jayati’ meaning ‘to win’. If the Mandarin term was borrowed from the same source (also likely in my view), it could have been written with various characters down through the centuries. The current 加油 would then be a kind of rationalization in order to make a foreign word seem native.

A more specific conjecture about the source form: Pali, the language of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures, has the following:

imassa jayo bhavissati 'Victory will be his.'

Jayo here is a deverbal noun in the nominative case: ‘victory.’ The form in Sanskrit would be identical in this context. As Sanskrit broadly speaking is the language of the Mahayana scriptures, this would most likely be the source for the Chinese word. 加油 is thus a transliteration, where the characters were chosen for their sound, not their meaning. Interpreting this as ‘add oil’ etc. is what linguists call folk etymology.

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"If the Mandarin term was borrowed from the same source (also likely in my view), it could have been written with various characters down through the centuries." Is there any research that has investigated this statement? –  無色受想行識 Dec 17 '13 at 9:57
I don’t have any citations of 加油 from medieval or Buddhist texts. The original character used for the first element might well have been 迦, which with this pronunciation (says the 漢語大字典) appears exclusively in words borrowed from Sanskrit, for example in 釋迦 or Śākya/Śākyamuni, the name for the historical Buddha. –  user2619 Dec 18 '13 at 1:55
Words meaning ‘hurrah’ with this sound shape (jaya/jayo) are found all around Asia – not only in Chinese, Sanskrit and Thai, but also in Hindi, Sinhala, Khmer etc. In Sanskrit, the meaning is clear (victory), so we must conclude that it is the donor language, even if we can’t pinpoint the exact circumstances of borrowing/diffusion. If anyone is going to argue that the reflex of this in Chinese has a separate origin, the burden of proof is on them. ‘Add oil’ is not very convincing. –  user2619 Dec 18 '13 at 1:55
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