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What Are "Chinese Whispers"?

By Bryce Clinton
Updated May 23, 2024
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Chinese whispers is a spoken language parlor game and an idiomatic English expression. The game is played by whispering a specific phrase from person to person until everyone has quietly said it, at which point the phrase is again spoken out loud. This often reveals a distorted and humorous version of the original phrase. As an idiom, its meaning comes from the game.

The idiomatic expression "Chinese whispers" refers to any story or piece of news that has been unreliably communicated by word of mouth among many people, leading to questionable information or a distorted account of the original story. The use of this expression is most common in British English. Close synonyms include "hearsay," "rumor" and "gossip," but with the added implication of a long chain of communication that has led to miscommunication.

When used to describe news, "Chinese whispers" implies irresponsibility on the part of those relaying the message. It might also imply an impulsive release of unsubstantiated information related to a breaking story. "Chinese whispers" is sometimes used as an expression in the media in reference to an irresponsibly originated or inaccurately reported news story.

The etymology or origin of the term "Chinese whispers" is uncertain, but it is widely suspected to be related to an analogy concerning the great linguistic differences between English and Chinese. What is implied is that a phrase used in the game will eventually become as foreign to its original English meaning as something spoken in Chinese. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the game also has been called Russian gossip or Russian scandal.

Other names for the game include telephone, whisper down the lane, rumors and pass the message. The game is sometimes played at children's parties or used as a classroom lesson to illustrate points about linguistic misunderstanding, the nature of communication or the malleability of language. Distortion of the phrases whispered from ear to ear works best when elements of the language can easily be mistaken for something else, so some expressions work better than others.

When playing the game, participants are often encouraged to whisper the phrases at a rate that approximates the speed one would normally speak. Participants might also be encouraged not to try too much to enunciate or speak clearly. This way, any natural flaws attendant to normal speaking patterns will be communicated, leading to miscommunication. Willfully changing the phrase is against the rules because it undermines the game. There is no competition or winner; the primary goal is entertainment or, in some cases, education.

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Discussion Comments

By truman12 — On Jun 03, 2012
One time I was at a party and we decided to play this game in a big circle. The phrase at the beginning was something like "Angela brought an umbrella." Angela was a real person at the party who we all knew. But by the time the phrase came out in the end it had been distorted into something very mean and disgusting that I will not repeat here.

I don't know how it happened, but that's what happened. It was probably a complete accident but Angela was very upset. It was kind of the ghost at the feast for the rest of the party.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jun 02, 2012

Most people have played this game before but in America it is commonly known as telephone. And if you have ever been in third grade you have probably played it before.

It was one of my favorites when I was a kid. More often than not the phrase at the end is wildly different than the phrase at the beginning. And I can remember giggling so hard as the words got whispered around the circle.

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