Chinese water torture

Mark A. Mandel Mark_Mandel at DRAGONSYS.COM
Mon Dec 11 16:30:08 UTC 2000

EdZotti at AOL.COM writes:

I'm researching the expression "Chinese water torture" for a newspaper


However, nothing about "Chinese water torture" (which of course does not
the implication of confused, disorganized or inferior). I have asked
native Chinese speakers and "Chinese water torture" is unknown to them. So
put the question before the house. Does anyone have any knowledge of the
origin of this term, or for that matter of the practice called by that
that is, torture by having water dripped on you slowly?

I've known this term since I can't remember when*, referring
 - literally, to torture by having water dripped on one (esp on the
forehead) one slow drop at a time; not a painful experience [except perhaps
(and if so, not insignificantly) with the repetition of a small impact
hundreds and thousands of times on the same spot] but disturbing and
 - figuratively, to an irritation or interruption repeated at long
intervals. The main force of this expression lies in the implication that
the event itself, singly, is not so disturbing as the repetition and,
especially, the repeated wait for it, like "waiting for the other shoe to
drop" but extended to an endless series, so that the "other shoe" brings
not relief ("At last!") but a renewal of anxiety.

I don't see it as at all pejorative in the sense of "confused, disorganized
or inferior", except perhaps by association. For me, any surviving
"Chinese" association in this phrase has been with a legendary reputation
of ancient Chinese tortures for an elegant (if that term can be used here)
combination of simplicity and excruciation.

* Age 52, grew up in NYC and its Westchester suburbs, native US English,
parents ditto. writes:

   Mark A. Mandel : Dragon Systems, a Lernout & Hauspie company
          Mark_Mandel at : Senior Linguist
 320 Nevada St., Newton, MA 02460, USA :

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