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

  • Actually it does translate to "add oil", see e.g. 加油站. You have never heard of 'figurative language'? Commented Jan 1, 2014 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
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 0:54
  • @KovácsImre If you feel the question should be closed please flag it or raise a discussion in the meta.
    – 50-3
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 1:11
  • For those who are able to access it, there's an article from 2009 with the subject 谈谈“加油”的词源 ("Discussion of the Etymology of 加油") from the journal Language Planning.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 18:00

5 Answers 5


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!

  • 3
    Hmm, nice explanation, but this doesn't provide what OP needs -- the history.
    – Stan
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 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
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 18:04

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.

  • 1
    "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?
    – HAL
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 9:57
  • 1
    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.
    – neubau
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 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.
    – neubau
    Commented Dec 18, 2013 at 1:55
  • The burden of proof is on you, because you haven't provided historical quotes tracing 加油 or some transliterated character variant back to a Buddhist text, while 加油 does not seem to be found in any classical texts and AFAIK can only be traced in the last 50-60 years.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 9:23

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 through 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

  • 2
    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
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 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
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 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
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 7:55
  • The 加油 in "火上加油" is different from the cheer "加油". They pronounce differently too.
    – tipsywacky
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 18:00

I'm pretty sure it's just one of those terms that became viral and it's suppose to be synonymous with a car. So the origin cannot predate the invention of automobiles. 加油 is used cause it's sounds better than using the word 加力 and etc... (And 加力 is used to mean something else). And it's often used during competitions, so it's appropriate because drag racing.


“Add oil” – what does it mean?

It represents the metaphor of injecting fuel into a tank, or alternatively, stepping on an accelerator to propel a vehicle forward. But the use of “add oil” as an expression of encouragement is a creation of Cantonese: ga yao, or jiayou in Mandarin. Often accompanied by exclamation marks, it is a versatile phrase Chinese speakers use to express encouragement, incitement or support, somewhere along the lines of “keep it up” or “good luck”. It is believed to have originated as a cheer at the Macau Grand Prix during the 1960s.


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