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Alternative forms[edit]


From Hindustani क़ुली / قلی(qulī, hired laborer), possibly from Ottoman Turkish قول(kul, servant). Another theory says that it is named after Gujarati કોળી (koḷī), a Gujarati tribe or caste. Other forms occur in Bengali কুলি (kuli) and Tamil கூலி (kūli, daily hire). Possibly also influenced by Hindustani کولی(kolī) / कोली (kolī, weaver; low-class). In Kurdish Koile (کۆیلە) and Quli (قولى): Slave, Servant. Kawli (Keweli): Low-Class, Gypsy.

Mandarin 苦力 (kǔlì, hard labor) may have been influenced by cognates of the above Hindi word in other languages and may have further influenced English.


  • IPA(key): /ˈkuːli/
  • (file)
  • Rhymes: -uːli


coolie (plural coolies)

  1. 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.
    • 1943 November and December, G. T. Porter, “The Lines Behind the Lines in Burma”, in Railway Magazine, page 325:
      Outside, beyond the sun-baked station yard, a rice mill chugged away in the distance, and sweating coolies unloaded bags of rice from creaking bullock carts.
    • 1992, Jan Breman, E. Valentine Daniel, “Conclusion: The Making of a Coolie”, in 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, Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean, Guyana, Jamaica, South Africa and other parts of Africa) An Indian or a person of Indian descent.
    • 1991, Larry Bond, Patrick Larkin, Vortex[1], page 56:
      Well, he and his troops had shown the koefietjies-the little coolies-how quickly and how easily Afrikaner explosive shells could knock it down.
    • 2014, Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Oneworld Publications (2015), page 199:
      Even a coolie would have been better.

Derived terms[edit]


  • Romanian: culi



  • 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.

See also[edit]



coolie m (plural coolies)

  1. coolie

Further reading[edit]