person of Chinese descent

Discuss word origins and meanings.

person of Chinese descent

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 29, 2007 1:26 am

Wiz, Whoa! I haven’t heard talk like that in years. Let's take NIGGER, etc. out of the moth balls. Sounds like someone from another planet or someone from the past who came to us in a time machine. But maybe life in Australia is a little like that or at least your take on it is. I thought this argument was over a long time ago. What someone chooses to call themself is their own business, but promoting or advertising, expressions in public that are offensive to a large segment of society is not nice. If someone chooses to call themself Motherfucker Jim, so be it, but why should the rest of us have to look up at his billboard proclaiming that?

Ken – January 28, 2007

person of Chinese descent

Post by gdwdwrkr » Mon Jan 29, 2007 2:08 am

Ken Greenwald wrote:
Wiz, Whoa! I haven’t heard talk like that in years. Let's take NIGGER, etc. out of the moth balls. Sounds like someone from another planet or someone from the past who came to us in a time machine. But maybe life in Australia is a little like that or at least your take on it is. I thought this argument was over a long time ago. What someone chooses to call themself is their own business, but promoting or advertising, expressions in public that are offensive to a large segment of society is not nice. If someone chooses to call themself Motherfucker Jim, so be it, but why should the rest of us have look up at his billboard proclaiming that?

Ken – January 28, 2007
Yes, M***********r Ken would be much better.

Oops, you meant "their billboard", right?

person of Chinese descent

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 29, 2007 5:44 am

John et al. You asked a good question and I think it raises an important general issue for those of us who want to be NICE (sensibly PC, not ornery, have good manners, do the right thing, be respectful of others, . . . ) with regard to what we call people as a group. In my view, and I’m in agreement with Shelley (and here just summarizing and adding some fill), CHINAMAN is NOT NICE, even though a particular person using it in a particular situation may not even realize it has negative overtones (Shelley’s ‘lack of information case’).

So how does one not do naughty and do NICE? I can think of two criteria that seem like they might provide some guidance:

1) Avoid words that are considered and have a history of being derogatory/demeaning (e.g. CHINAMAN, Kraut, Jap, nigger, macaca, . . .). And if one is told that a word/phrase is or isn’t NICE and you don’t understand why – try to find out, as you, John, did here, and then you can make your own decision. And, as Shelley points out there is a difference between lack of information and an intentional insult, although the impact on the person on the receiving end may be the same — think Senator George Allen’s recent macaca moment

2) Call people what they, as a group (and I’m talking major groups here: races, religions, nationalities, etc., have indicated they prefer to be called (and this may require some checking, but if you care, you’ll do it). And why not? Too much work and you don’t think it matters? – Well, if one prefers to be NOT NICE, that’s your choice!

As an example, consider the use of the word ESKIMO. In 1964-66 when I spent 2 years in Alaska, I can tell you that, even back then, when I dated a young native woman, I was told in no uncertain terms that she didn’t appreciate being called an Eskimo. And considering what I have read on the subject and the Random House comment below, I guess I would err on the side of not chancing to be offensive, which really doesn’t require a lot of work on one’s part.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary said the following:

ESKIMO: Many Inuit consider ESKIMO derogatory, in part because the word was, erroneously, long thought to mean literally “eater of raw meat.” INUIT has also come to be used in a wider sense, to name all people traditionally called ESKIMO, regardless of local self-designations. Nonetheless, ESKIMO continues in use in all parts of the world, especially in historical and archaeological contexts and in reference to the people as a cultural and linguistic unity. The term Native American is sometimes used to include Eskimo and Aleut peoples.

As a second example, consider the NEGRO/BLACK name controversy (see Negro, colored, Black, African American, person of color). In days of yore I used to refer to blacks as Negroes and it was clear at the time that was the name they preferred (e.g. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – NAACP). Later on, following the Black Power movement of the 1960s, it became clear that most Negroes preferred to be called ‘blacks.’ So, if blacks, in general, preferred to be called ‘blacks’ and not ‘Negroes,’ who am I to, and why should I, argue. Seems to me the NICE thing to do is to call a people what they prefer to be called – and how much skin is that off one’s nose anyway?

So my advice (and Shelley’s), if you wanna be NICE, is to avoid words/phrases that may carry pejorative, historical baggage and/or those which the named group openly rejects. Some people may still want to call Beijing, Peking, but that was not what the Chinese wanted it to be called and it isn’t anymore, and that’s the way it should be.

Now let’s talk about CHINAMAN. Inherently there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with it. In fact, it seems to be a perfectly logical name for a native of China. Aside from the sexist issue, putting the suffix ‘man’ at the end of a national group makes sense and is common, although it doesn’t seem that the naming of ‘natives of lands’ ever followed any logical system that I’m aware of (Greek, Frenchman, Italian, Englishman, Spaniard, Norman, Icelander, Irish, Norwegian, Finn/Finnish/Finlander, . . .) .

So what went wrong with CHINAMAN? The problem, as Shelley stated, was in the way the word was used. As I scanned the newspaper, magazine, and book archives dating back to its earliest appearance in print (I found 1808 versus the OED’s 1854) it was repeatedly used in a derogatory way. Note in the quotes below, that by the mid 19th century even newspaper editorials were calling him JOHNNY CHINAMAN and talking of him as being one notch above the negro slave (they were said to be ‘more conscientious’ ). And many derogatory expressions appeared in print in the early 20th century including:

CHINAMAN’S LUCK [1900s] (Australia) Good luck, with an implication of it being undeserved. (See 1895 quote below).

CHINAMAN’S CHANCE [1910 and still in use] (U.S.)] No chance whatsoever or the slightest possible chance [referring to the gold rush when the Chinese worked otherwise abandoned claims with little chance of success]. (See 1910 quote below).

CHINAMAN noun 1) [late 19th century and still in use] An Irishman [figurative use that implies the alienation of an immigrant. 2) [1940s-50s] (West Indies) A farthing. [like the stereotyped Chinese, the coin is small]

CHINAMAN’S SHOUT [20th century and still in use] (Australia) A supposed ‘treat’ for which everyone involved must pay. [the presumed miserliness of the Chinese]

CHINAMAN’S NIGHTMARE [1980s] (U.S.) Bedlam, chaos [racial stereotyping]

Note: While searching for early examples of the use of Chinaman, I came upon hundreds of examples of it being used to mean “a dealer in porcelain” (Chinaware/chinaware/China/china beginning in the 18th century. This person was not necessarily Chinese and the word was not used in a derogatory sense.
<1808 “Tea velly good. You no eat much dinna. I see all plate when he come out. I say: ‘Abby, who plate that—no likee dinna?’ Abby come down pantly, eat plenty dinna, dlink plenty wine. Abby say: ‘Her plate. She no like CHINAMAN cooking.”—Davenport Daily Leader, 23 January, page 11> [[supposed Chinese dialogue]]

<1827 “Why, really, their conduct to him is as bad as if he was a CHINAMAN.”—‘London Times’ (Middlesex), 7 February, page 7>

<1838 “He proceeds to give the most gratifying evidence that the Tracts are sought for the sake of being read. ‘Seldom or never,’ he says ‘have I [[missionary in Thailand]] known an intelligent CHINAMAN wishing for two Tracts of the same kind.”—‘Alton Observer,’ (Illinois), 1 January, page 45>

<1844 “You of the land of eternal snows in the New England States,—while you are sending cargoes of ice to the celestial CHINAMAN, why don’t you think of your terrestial [[sic]] neighbors of the Western World and alleviate their wants forwarding invoices of Snow to Wisconsin [[very unsnowy winter]].”—‘Milwaukee Daily Sentinel’ (Wisconsin), 31 December, page 2>

<1847 “Thus it is the whigery [sic]] ever tries to frighten the people . . . They stand in the way of progress as did the Chinese on their hills to frighten the British soldiers with gongs and hideous outcries; and their clamor should have just as much effect upon the Democracy as the din of JOHNNY CHINAMAN had upon the invading army of England.”—‘Evening Courier’ (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 17 April, page 2>

<1848 “To give you an idea of the estimation in which females are held, if you ask a CHINAMAN how many children he has, he will, in answer, tell you only the number of his boys, . . .”— ‘Janesville Gazette, 23 November, page 13>

<1851 “Thinking himself [[French composer Berlioz]] the sole living being within the walls [[of the exhibition hall in London at 7:00 A.M.]], he finds he has two companions, a Chinese, and a sparrow. With the most gracious air he approached the CHINAMAN, . . . His [[Berlioz’s]] ‘Good morning, sir,’ however, receives no reply. JOHN CHINAMAN turns his back, and taking some sandwiches out of a box, begins to munch them with seeming great contempt for such barbarian meats.”—‘The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular,’ Vol. 4, No. 9, October, page 271>

<1852 “The planter found the profit of possessing a vigorous and faithful drudge, which the Coolie always is. . . The stories of wealth to be earned in America have been made more and more familiar to the CHINAMAN. Speculators have found it in the highest degree profitable to send for an invoice of CHINAMEN, who were anxious to engage at rates ridiculously below those prevailing in California. . . But in Cuba, the difference between the cost of the Negro and the pay of the CHINAMAN is so slight . . . If the gain of replacing the indolence and mechanical incapacity of the negro, with the cheap industry, constancy, and ingenuity of the CHINAMAN, . . . ”—‘New York Times,' 15 April, page 2>

<1854 “The disgust of California has not been able to drive nor kick the CHINAMAN back to the home.”—‘Letters & Social Aims, Resources’ in Works (Bohn), III. page 198>

<1858 “Francis H. Haskell, master of the American ship Sherwood has been sued in the U.S. court for cutting off the queue or pigtail of a JOHNNY CHINAMAN.”—‘Dodge County Citizen, 9 May, page 2>

<1869 “Now, the black sees that if JOHNNY CHINAMAN will work at twenty cents a day, his question of a home is solved all at once. If his former masters can now hire him at present wages, he, in turn, can hire JOHNNY CHINAMAN and turn farmer for himself.”—‘Fort Wayne Daily Gazette’ (Indiana), 27 July, page 1>

<1872 “The shaven-headed, sandal-footed, shrunken-shanked, almond-eyed, addle-pated CHINAMAN, who, with stealth of fox and eye of lynx, ‘counts your chickens before they are hatched, . . .’”—The Golden State’ by R. G. McClellan, page 409>

<1878 “No negro, CHINAMAN, or mulatto shall have the right of suffrage.”—‘The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and other Organic Law of the United States ... Compiled Under an Order of the United States Senate’ by Ben: Perley Poore, page 1494>

<1880 “The CHINAMAN [[shop owner]] was not present, so they had to wait a few minutes until he came in. Says Gilhooly, ‘I can’t understand why so many people have an unfounded prejudice against CHINAMEN.’ ‘D—n CHINAMEN, anyhow,’ replied Spillkins. ‘They attend closely to their business.’ ‘D—n CHINAMEN, anyhow,’ retorted Spillkins. Gilhooly retorted,‘You are prejudiced, Spillkins.’ Just then JOHNNY CHINAMAN entered, all smiles. Gilhooly shook hands most cordially with the despised Mongolian and asked if his cane was ready. ‘Half dollee flirstlee,’said JOHNNY, holding out his itching palm. Gilhooly got red behind the ears and said, ‘You sallow-complected baboon gimme that cane or I’ll wear it out on your hide. ‘I can’t understand why so many people have such an unfounded prejudice against CHINAMEN,’ observed Spilkins, gravely looking up at the ceiling: ‘you are certainly prejudiced, Gilhooly.’”—‘Galveston Daily News’ (Texas), 18 July, 1880. page 7>

<1883 “The Annamites [[former kingdom and French protectorate along the East coast of French Indochina: now part of Vietnam]] do not appear to have developed any attachment for trading—perhaps they find JOHNNY CHINAMAN one too many for them.”—‘Steven’s Point Journal’ (Wisconsin), 6 October, page 3>

<1895 “He now understood that it was not ‘CHINAMAN’S LUCK’ that had beaten him, but this little contrivance, worn under the clothing, by the operation of which all elements of chance were eliminated from poker and the game reduced to a ‘dead certainty.’”—‘Mountain Democrat’ (Placerville, California), 4 May, page 3>

<1900 “JOHNNY CHINAMAN is sorry now that he went to the trouble of getting his gun.”—‘Anaconda Standard’ (Montana), 26 August, page 14> [[reference to the Chinese ‘Boxer Rebellion’ (1900)]]

<1910 “And when the ballot does reach us we will be in a position to dictate all the nominations. And a homely roon won’t stand a CHINAMAN’S CHANCE. A man will have to be a combination of Adonis and Apollo to get a job as alder man.”—“Anaconda Standard’ (Montana), 20 February, page 19> [[my first appearance in print; OED 1914 (see next quote)]]

<1914 “The poor boob ain't got a CHINAMAN’S CHANCE.”—‘The Call’ (San Francisco), 30 April, page 6>

<1923 “World’s Schools Differ Greatly: School children all over the northern half of the world are putting away their school books for the summer months. Little JOHNNY CHINAMAN’S Primer, . . . is stored away for his younger brother’s use . . .”—‘Reno Evening Gazette’ (Nevada), 18 July, page 10>

<1924 “Mr. JOHNNY CHINAMAN has an eye for bad tricks. In California not a few of them have blossomed into a full-fledged band of marauders.”—‘Galveston Daily News’ (Texas), 8 December, page 4>

<1947 “When the hell-raisers among our boyhood pals would sometimes open the front door of the town’s Chinese laundries, yell ‘Ching Chong CHINAMAN,’ and run away . . .”—‘Gazette and Bulletin’ (Williamsport, Pennsylvania), 7 march, page 8>

<1967 “. . . go right to the IBM office in Pittsburgh and ask if you can put this question to the biggest computer they have. Tell them to give you a four-CHINAMAN machine, if they like.”—‘Coshocton Tribune,’ 9 August, page 17> [[the article jokingly suggest that there are actually Chinamen with abacuses inside the computer]]

<1993 “Disputes between architects and curators arose frequently during construction [[Louvre renovation]]. One of the worst involved the wall colors in the exhibition space for Northern European 17th century paintings. Pei [[the famed architect]] wanted beige or off-white, . . . But the curators insisted on stronger tones. The dispute grew so acrimonious that one curator is reported by several observers to have referred repeatedly to Pei, behind his back, as "that slant-eyed little CHINAMAN."—‘Time Magazine,’ 29 November> [[this was the final appearance of the word Chinaman in the pages of Time]]

While we’re on the subject. The word JEW is an interesting case. JEW is the name of a member of a religion and some would say a race. My grandparents on both sides were Jewish, my father was an atheist, my mother had no opinion, I grew up an atheist, was not bar mitzvahed, celebrated a non-Christian Christmas every year of my life, learned to read Hebrew and studied the Torah with my orthodox grandfather, celebrated Passover and other lesser Jewish holidays with him, Army dog tags say Religion: None, converted from atheism to agnosticism while doing my graduate work in physics, and am now an agnostic Unitarian Universalist and Secular Humanist. But am I still a Jew? I’ve been told both yes and no – but mostly yes – by folks who are up on this sort of thing.

Like CHINAMAN, but with a longer and more tragic history (not to diminish the travails of the ‘Chinaman’), JEW has become a NOT NICE word when used in certain ways, which I’m sure we’re all aware of. As a result JEW has become a word with a strange personality. A JEW calling a JEW a JEW (somewhat analogous is a black calling another black a ‘nigger’) is mostly O.K. But a non-JEW referring to a JEW as a JEW in many contexts carries baggage, whether people want to admit it or not. And in reaction, to this I have noticed the interesting phenomenon of non-JEWS, and even some JEWS, going through all kinds of contortions to avoid using the dreaded word for fear of sounding offensive. The doubt and reluctance is palpable. Such folks will often try a workaround by covering with the word JEWISH (e.g. “The Jewish man you see walking across the street is my next door neighbor.”), which they feel doesn’t have quite the bite of the more ‘offensive’ JEW. But I suppose a lot of this is understandable with the horrendous historical record of the abuse of the people and the word by mostly other supposedly religious people.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang

JEW noun 1) [17th century and still in use] A mean person; a skinflint 2) [1900s] (Australian) A bookmaker 3) [1940s-50s] (/U.S. Black) The boss, irrespective of their actual religion. 4) [1950s] (West Indies) Any rich person, presumably white but with no religious overtones, other than the worldwide derogatory stereotype.

JEW adjective (also JEWISH) [17th century and still in use] In slang, reflecting centuries of Christian teaching, the Jew is grasping, avaricious, wealthy, untrustworthy, deceitful and mean (as well as circumcised and abstaining from pork), Thus virtually all combinations below with Jew/Jewish are derogatory and play on these stereotypes.

jew (down ) verb (also jew out/up) [early 19th century and still in use] To cheat financially; also to haggle. [racial stereotyping; the cheater need not be Jewish]

So what do you tell the kids when it comes to the use of NOT NICE words such as nigger, Chinaman, kraut, Jap, Jew in a bad way, macaca, etc. I’d tell them to be aware that there are these offensive racial slurs. But you can’t try to hide them or deny that they exist, have existed, and appear in print, or as James put it “sanitize the accounts of history” and ban material that contain them – I agree that would be wrong. But what you can do is tell them, yes there were these bad, demeaning, and derogatory words, which people who didn’t know any better used to use a lot, and there are some who still do. You’ll see and hear these words occasionally and read old accounts containing them. But that was then and this is now and we should have, and I think most of us have, learned from our mistakes and that’s why the use of these words is dying off and hopefully someday they will be completely extinct.

Ken G – January 28, 2007

person of Chinese descent

Post by gdwdwrkr » Mon Jan 29, 2007 1:31 pm

Well put, Ken, and nicely put.
One little wrinkle I would add as a request to groups wanting to be called certain things: stop with the moving targets. Yes, Eskimo may have been offensive in the 60s.
It was in the 60s we were directed to say "black". It gets a bit tiring being drug from term-to-term, say negro-black-person-of-color-African-American-future-discoveries-amoungst-tribal-names.
As one's understanding of his origins evolves, he might just mature into acceptance of any old reference (delivered in a civil tone) and be happy to talk more about it.
Wouldn't a good approach be to think critically as I taught my children to watch TV: always ask, "What are the senders of those little colored dots trying to make me think?".?

person of Chinese descent

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Jan 29, 2007 4:28 pm

James, the target usually moves because each successive self-descriptor chosen by the racial/ethnic group in question gradually becomes poisoned with many of the same negative associations as its predecessors, and so a new term is chosen to replace it that the group considers to be free, or mostly free, of this taint.
Signature: -- Looking up a word? Try OneLook's metadictionary (--> definitions) and reverse dictionary (--> terms based on your definitions)8-- Contribute favourite diary entries, quotations and more here8 -- Find new postings easily with Active Topics8-- Want to research a word? Get essential tips from experienced researcher Ken Greenwald

person of Chinese descent

Post by gdwdwrkr » Mon Jan 29, 2007 5:40 pm

I guess it's the corporate ID that bugs me.
I have a dream......

person of Chinese descent

Post by trolley » Mon Jan 29, 2007 6:12 pm

Wow! 50 points for everyone (almost everyone). Somewhere around the second page, I was beginning to regret having ever stirred this pot. In the end, I wound up with many more answers and a few more questions than I could have wished for. There's so much food for thought that I fear that some of it may spoil and become unuseable before I get a chance to digest it all. Maybe, I'll invite some friends over. It's a big old goofy world.
Cheers and thanks

person of Chinese descent

Post by Meirav Micklem » Mon Jan 29, 2007 11:59 pm

Hope you can cope if I add another bite to your feast.

I think Erik has a point there about the moving targets. I have noticed the way people can say that someone is "a bit learning-difficulties" in exactly the same sort of tone of voice in which they would have years ago called this person a retard. So one of these days they'll probably come up with a new term, and the "learning difficulties" euphemism will no longer be considered PC.

And as a person who is Jewish I can testify to the truth of Ken's comments on the word "Jew". For some deep unconscious reason I do cringe when I hear the word "Jew", and am much much happier describing people as "a Jewish person" or "someone who is Jewish". You ask me why? Do I know why? <shrug>

I do prefer to be nice to people and call them by names they don't feel insulted by, but it does sometimes get tricky to keep track of the 'moving targets'. I think the older you are the more difficult it must get. I remember smiling when my mum (in her eighties, brought up in the old South Africa) asked me about my Ghanaian friend: 'Your friend from Ghana - is she <whisper> dark?' To me it sounded awful, but actually she was trying to be nice, and she'd been brought up to think that it's not nice to say that someone is black.

But I must stop and let our friend continue chewing.

person of Chinese descent

Post by John Barton » Mon Mar 26, 2007 10:13 am

I think in the past "Chinese" (applied to people) was correct only as a plural - one Chinee, two Chinese. But that 'Chinee' became derogatory, or at least pejorative?
Signature: John Barton, New Plymouth, New Zealand

person of Chinese descent

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:11 pm

I wonder if anyone found the references today by politicians to "the people of the Island of Ireland and the UK" worrying?

person of Chinese descent

Post by gdwdwrkr » Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:14 pm

well, now that you mention it, is Irish insulting? British? Ooooooo..such name-calling!

person of Chinese descent

Post by sgcltd » Fri Sep 14, 2007 7:32 pm

In answer to Meirav about being called a Jew as against being referred to 'as a Jewish preson' etc.

It's obvious, the latter statements make reference to the person and then associates a descriptive element or characteristic.

The former singles you out as a single marked entity of being a Jew, nothing else, and if there's historical and nasty baggage to be had (i.e. meanness), then you are tarnished with it all.

I picked this up from people with health difficulties; I once listened to a radio interview from a person with schizophrenia. She said she hated being called a schizophrenic as against a person suffering from schizophrenia.

Big difference.
Signature: Thanks,

person of Chinese descent

Post by LoisMartin » Sat Sep 15, 2007 1:03 am

Alabama has a truly amazing institution, The Alabama School for Deaf and Blind, where Helen Keller (among others) studied. About 20 years ago, the trustees decided that its original name, The Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind, was offensive because it characterized their students only by their disabilities. However, I've never understood why they didn't just add a noun--The Alabama School for Deaf and Blind Students or something. It actually offends the grammarian in me to have a name that ends in a pair of adjectives.
Signature: Lois from Birmingham

person of Chinese descent

Post by gdwdwrkr » Sat Sep 15, 2007 9:29 am

Much of the problem is in the hearer. Until his real disability
is healed, he will attribute his pain to the insensitivities of
I'll use Joni Eareckson Tada as an example. Having broken her
neck in a swimming accident when she was 16, she became extremely
angry in the hospital when she learned that she was paralyzed and
would remain a parapelegic for the rest of her angry
that she resolved to kill herself.
But she couldn't, and her friends would not help her do it either.
She gradually became aware that her real disability was her need
to be in complete control of her life, which, of course, she "no
longer" was, and so she set out to find another way.
She found that other Way, and to this day declares herself healed,
though she remains in the wheelchair.
The point is that she is un-offendable, no matter what she is called.
She hears the word 'cripple' and says a silent prayer for the
speaker's ignorance. She is asked to support the committee which
indignantly seeks to remove "Stand Up For Jesus" from the hymnal
"because it so hurts those among us who can not stand" and she
graciously explains that one stands in his heart, no matter his
outward ability.
Response to offense can indicate spiritual maturity.

person of Chinese descent

Post by russcable » Sat Sep 15, 2007 5:40 pm

According to its website, The Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind ( ) still contains The Alabama School for the Deaf and The Alabama School for the Blind.

I'm not sure that either change would do much to fix the problem of characterizing the student by disability. Twenty odd years ago, I did some volunteer work at an institution founded in the 1890's as "New Orleans Home for the Incurables". I think you can see that changing it to "Home for Incurable Patients" would not reduce the offensiveness of the name. The name had, in fact, been changed to New Orleans Home and Rehabilitation Center quite some time before I was there, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were still known by the old name.

I agree that "for Deaf and Blind" is grammatically odd, but I would put a School for Students close to the Department of Redundancy Department. It would be between the Hospital for Patients and the Church for Believers (with its Cemetery for the Dead), but that's probably my personal quirk.

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