Chinese fire drill is a politically incorrect slang term describing a situation that is chaotic or confusing, possibly due to poor or misunderstood instructions.
Example: “Yo, dude! This school evacuation is almost like a Chinese fire drill!”
However, the expression is also used for a prank in which people get out of a stopped car at the red light and run around to swap seats.
The origin of the term “Chinese fire drill” goes back to the 1900s and supposedly originates from an actual fire drill on a ship run by British officers and a largely Chinese crew practicing the procedure of putting out a fire in the engine room.
As the story goes one bucket group was supposed to draw water from the starboard side of the ship, bring it to the engine room and pour it on the “fire”.
To prevent flooding, another group of the crew was supposed to ferry the dumped water from the engine room up to the main deck and heave the water over the port.
At some point the orders became confused in translation and the crew started simply drawing water from one side of the boat, run directly over the other side and simply dump the water overboard without getting it to the engine room.
In Western culture the word “Chinese” was used to denote “confusion” most probably as the result of the radically different cultures that met in the 1600s.
The phrase “Chinese fire drill” was documented to be used athe mong U.S. Marine corps during WWII by often claiming “as screwed up as a Chinese fire drill”.
Later Americans commonly used it during the Korean war and Vietnam w, and many former soldiers used the term as the title of the titles or descriptions of the battles.
The phrase itself is still used to this day, to describe chaotic situations, where the actions of the people are not really known.
The aforementioned prank, for which the term was chosen as a name, appeared in 1960.
The scene soon appeared in pop culture for example in the early scenes of 1970s sitcom Happy Days, in which Richie Cunningham is racing around the car with friends, holding up traffic.