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Alternative forms[edit]


From Hindi क़ुली (qulī) and Urdu قلی (qulī, hired laborer), named after a Gujarati tribe or caste of that name. Other forms occur in Bengali [script needed] (kuli) and Tamil கூலி (kūli, 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.
    • 1992, Jan Breman, E. Valentine Daniel, Conclusion: The Maiking of a Coolie, E. Valentine Daniel, Henry Bernstein, Tom Brass (editors), Plantations, Proletarians, and Peasants in Colonial Asia, Frank Cass & Co., page 268,
      Coolie-identity is as much the product of self-perception as it is the construction of a category by those who did not belong to it. It is these constructions that historically constituted a coolie in the matrix of power relations which this essay seeks to partially comprehend.
    • 2008, Lisa Yun, The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, Temple University Press, page xix,
      Community histories did not necessarily feature the coolie, partly due to the fact that “coolie” is a classed term. Asian coolies were regarded as lowly laborers.
  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.