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From Hindi-Urdu क़ुली (qulī) / قلی (qulī, hired laborer), from Turkish köle. Other forms occur in Bengali [script needed] (kuli) and Tamil [script needed] (kuli, daily hire). Possibly also influenced by Hindi कोली (kolī, weaver; low-class). The Mandarin word 苦力 (kǔlì), meaning "to exert one's abilities; heavy labour work" in Classical Chinese, may have been influenced by cognates of the above Hindi word in other languages and may have further influenced English.



coolie (plural coolies)

  1. (offensive, slang) An unskilled Asian worker, usually of Chinese or Indian descent; a labourer; a porter. Coolies were frequently transported to other countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries as indentured labourers.
    • 1913, Elizabeth Kimball Kendall, A Wayfarer in China
      From Hui-li-chou northwards I was escorted by real soldiers, quite of the new service. They looked rather shipshape in khaki suits and puttees, and their guns were of a good model, but they handled them in careless fashion at first, belabouring laden ponies and even coolies who were slow in getting out of the way of my chair.
  2. (offensive, slang, Trinidad, West Indies, Guyana and parts of Africa) A person of Indian descent.

Derived terms[edit]



  • Yule, Henry and Burnell, A. C. (1886): Hobson-Jobson The Anglo-Indian Dictionary. Reprint: Ware, Hertfordshire. Wordsworth Editions Limited. 1996.
  • Le grand dictionnaire Ricci de la langue chinoise, (2001), Vol. III, p. 833.