"Chinese helicopter" under attack

« previous post | next post »

Just a couple of weeks ago, we learned about 19 Singaporean expressions that had been newly added to the OED:

"New Singaporean and Hong Kong terms in the OED" (5/12/16)

Among these expressions was "Chinese helicopter", which was characterized as "derogatory" and defined as "a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English".

No sooner did that post go up than I started to receive notes from Singaporean friends and acquaintances telling me that they had never heard of this term and doubted its authenticity.  I reported on their skepticism two days later here (last comment to the above-mentioned post) and at the end of this post:

"Singlish: alive and well " (5/14/16)

However, since the OED provides quotations from 1981, 1985, 1997, and 2008, I hazarded the guess that perhaps "Chinese helicopter" had simply already gone out of common use.  Looking further, though, I discovered that the superb online A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English, launched in 2004, has an even more extensive entry for "Chinese helicopter".

Nonetheless, the doubts about "Chinese helicopter" have now escalated to outright opposition.  See "Petition to remove 'Chinese helicopter' from Oxford English Dictionary " (The Straits Times, 5/28/16):

Freelance writer and translator Goh Beng Choo has launched an online petition to have the term "Chinese helicopter" removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

She and the 185 other like-minded Singaporeans who had signed the petition as of 10pm yesterday say that the term – used in the 1970s and 1980s to describe a Chinese-educated person who spoke and pronounced English poorly – is degrading and insulting.

I can think of countless degrading and insulting terms that are included in the OED as a matter of record.  Should they all be removed?

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. GH said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 8:49 am

    Perhaps they should look up "Streisand effect".

  2. Ralph said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 10:28 am

    Singapore does not have an illustrious history with regard to free speech, freedom of the press, censorship etc. A paradise for prescriptivist peevers – no doubt the courts will just ban the OED if they don't comply.

    "In 2015, Singapore was ranked 153rd out of 175 nations by Reporters Without Borders in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index. Freedom in the World scored Singapore 4 out of 7 for political freedom, and 4 out of 7 for civil liberties (where 1 is the most free), with an overall ranking of "partly free" for the year 2015."


  3. EndlessWaves said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 1:38 pm

    I went looking for the actual petition, here's the link:

    While I could understand them wanting it removed from a concise or regional edition of the dictionary, or left off a new worlds list, they seem to want to remove it from the database entirely.

  4. K. Chang said,

    May 30, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    People use Change.org for all sort of ridiculous petitions. I recall several petitions to "leave alone" ponzi schemes that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from millions of people… started by the VICTIMS (victim's cognitive dissonance?)

RSS feed for comments on this post