Coulter: "Hispanics" and "Mandarins" at a Trump rally

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From an anonymous correspondent:

Here’s an article about how Ann Coulter described the audience at a Trump rally as "a melting pot full of 'Hispanics' and 'Mandarins.’” (Her actual words seem to be, “They have Mandarins in the audience. They have Hispanics in the audience.”)

"Ann Coulter brags about the large number of 'Mandarins' at California pro-Trump rally" (shanghaiist, 6/1/16)

This is interesting (and weird) in itself—I’ve not heard this usage before—but I’m mainly sending this along because (not that I mean to defend Ann Coulter), after she justified herself by saying, "They are Mandarins. It is written in Mandarin”, one of the statements the article uses to criticize her is the very silly "Written Mandarin Chinese doesn't exist.”

There have been a number of articles about the surprising Chinese-American support for Trump.  Here's one, with video:

"Chinese Americans Heart Trump" (VOA, 5/27/16) (with video)

On a related note, in "The term 'Oriental' is outdated, but is it racist?" (Los Angeles Times, 6/1/16), Jane Tsuchiyama writes:

It is now politically incorrect to use the word “Oriental,” and the admonition has the force of law: President Obama recently signed a bill prohibiting use of the term in all federal documents. Rep. Grace Meng, the New York congresswoman who sponsored the legislation, exulted that “at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good.”

As an Oriental, I am bemused. Apparently Asians are supposed to feel demeaned if someone refers to us as Orientals. But good luck finding a single Asian American who has ever had the word spat at them in anger. Most Asian Americans have had racist epithets hurled at them at one time or another: Chink, slant eye, gook, Nip, zipperhead. But Oriental isn’t in the canon.

And why should it be? Literally, it means of the Orient or of the East, as opposed to of the Occident or of the West. Last I checked, geographic origin is not a slur. If it were, it would be wrong to label people from Mississippi as Southerners….

My profession, Oriental medicine, is among those on the receiving end of the identity-politics outbreak. A funny thing I noticed is that my Caucasian (dare I say Occidental?) colleagues, not my Asian colleagues, are most eager to remove Oriental from public discourse. I suppose they’re busy shouldering their burden of guilt. Margaret Cho said it best: “White people like to tell Asians how to feel about race because they’re too scared to tell black people.”

In my field, the word “Oriental” appears in the title of 17 of the 58 accredited graduate-level schools, 21 of the 33 state associations and eight of the 24 national associations. Though the new federal legislation does not require us to act, it has increased pressure to toe the politically correct line.

Are we really going to waste time, energy and millions of dollars to rebrand our entire discipline — rename our schools and boards, redesign corporate identities, websites and publications and send out thousands of revised diplomas — all to wipe away an insult that doesn’t exist?…

I am particularly sensitive to the nuances of "Oriental", because my department at Penn used to be called "Oriental Studies", until our office was occupied by students who felt offended by that name, even though we believed in "ex oriente lux".  And then there there was all that talk about "Orientalism" and "self-orientalizing" when Chinese characters were being discussed two or three weeks ago in the press and on Language Log.

How long will it be before all those Oriental noodle shops catch on to the new legislation?

[Thanks to Matt Anderson and Daniel Devaney]


  1. D.O. said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 9:43 pm

    And, of course, we are all Englishmen (Englishpersons, if you will) because we speak and write English.

  2. Uly said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 10:05 pm

    I always figured that "Oriental" was kinda like "Colored" – it never actually became offensive, per se, but using it marks you as being appallingly behind the times in certain matters, and prone to say carelessly offensive things with the best of intentions and without even realizing it, unlike the people who throw around bona fide slurs.

  3. Mark S. said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 10:07 pm

    Tsuchiyama makes rather too much of this. She states, "Though the new federal legislation does not require us to act, it has increased pressure to toe the politically correct line."

    Aiya. The new legislation isn't some massive change or a broad brush. It amends one line each in just two bits of legislation: the Department of Energy Organization Act and the Local Public Works Capital Development and Investment Act of 1976.

    Here's the full text:

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

    (a) Office Of Minority Economic Impact.—Section 211(f)(1) of the Department of Energy Organization Act (42 U.S.C. 7141(f)(1)) is amended by striking “a Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or is a Spanish speaking individual of Spanish descent” and inserting “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, a Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American, or an Alaska Native”.

    (b) Minority Business Enterprises.—Section 106(f)(2) of the Local Public Works Capital Development and Investment Act of 1976 (42 U.S.C. 6705(f)(2)) is amended by striking “Negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts” and inserting “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, African American, Hispanic, Native American, or Alaska Natives”.

    So basically in those two little bits of text, and just those two, U.S. citizens of Asian descent get called Asian Americans rather than Orientals.

    The bill passed both the House and the Senate unopposed.

    I believe its main effect is to get the legislator who introduced it into the news.

  4. Gene Callahan said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

    "I always figured that "Oriental" was kinda like "Colored" – it never actually became offensive, per se, but using it marks you as being appallingly behind the times in certain matters…"

    Heaven forbid anyone not spend large amounts of time figuring out what "progressives" have deemed offensive this week! Like the correspondent above, not once in my five+ decades have I ever heard "Oriental" used as a slur. Can you imagine? "Hey wop!" "Well, you're an… an… oriental!"

  5. Yuval said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 12:29 am

    I can see this happening as a case of hypercorrection: being used to correcting "Chinese" into "Mandarin" (the language), the adjectival lexeme also creeps in to the paradigm.

  6. mollymooly said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 1:34 am

    A slur is intentionally offensive; I can't think of a term for words like "Oriental" and "Coloured" which cause unintentional offence. How about "condescendonym"?

  7. Linda said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 3:27 am

    Sorry, but my initial reaction was that Trump was attracting support from senior civil servants, or possibly small oranges. The only uses I have for mandarin as a noun.

  8. RP said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:08 am

    I don't necessarily disagree with you or your correspondent. But this is a flawed line of argument: "why should it be? Literally, it means of the Orient or of the East, as opposed to of the Occident or of the West."

    Language just isn't always that logical. The fact that "Negro" literally means "black" doesn't mean that people who are fine with the word "black" will be fine with the word "Negro", nor that they should be.

  9. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:47 am

    What Uly and RP said (I was just about to post the 'negro' analogy myself). Arguments like Tsuchiyama's ignore how English works. Words don't remain fixed in meaning or connotation, and it's absurd to pretend that they do. For example, if someone who isn't terribly elderly chooses the spelling 'Moslem' over 'Muslim', it tells you something about their world view, even though there's nothing inherently wrong with the first spelling.

    Slurs are not always the same as epithets used to insult people openly. Uly's example of 'coloured' is a good example.

    Nor is English consistent in these matters, and it's silly to pretend that it should be. The fact that 'Oriental' remains acceptable in certain medicinal, culinary, and artistic contexts (though 'Oriental rug' refers to a different kind of Orient) doesn't mean the term should apply to people. In the UK, where 'Asian' generally means 'South Asian', 'Oriental' is not as controversial, but the same clearly isn't true for the US. Some institutions of higher leaning have scrapped 'Oriental' from their names; others (including the famously progressive SOAS in London) have decided to treat the word as a sort of relic but are aware that they may need to reassess the situation at some point in the future.

    Usage and context matters above all else.

  10. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:54 am

    *Usage and context matter above all else.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 5:14 am

    Not only did I teach in Oriental Studies at Penn, I also received an MPhil from SOAS, so "Oriental" is an integral part of my academic heritage.

  12. richardelguru said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 6:10 am

    Damn! I've now got the song of the Ass earworming me like the dickens!
    "Orientis partibus: Adventavit Asinus…."

  13. Graeme said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 6:45 am

    Occidental Death of an Orientalist (with apologies to Signor Fo).

  14. Lane said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 8:08 am

    Victor, were the students protesting "Oriental" themselves Asian or Asian-American?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 8:23 am


    SFIK, the leaders of the movement were two Japanese Americans who didn't speak Japanese and were not in our Department. This is so ironic in light of what Jane Tsuchiyama says in her article about "The term 'Oriental'". I should note that those were the days when Edward Said was an influential force in American academia.

  16. Helen said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 8:34 am

    When I was corrected for using Oriental (yes, by a Caucasian) I was told it was too broad a term and it's preferable to refer to people by their country of origin if possible. (To avoid the "all you people look alike" sentiment, I suppose.) Oddly enough the acceptable "Asian" covers even more territory so I'm wondering if there's another reason for not using Oriental, such as to avoid confusing people with the rugs?

  17. languagehat said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    I look at it like this: human beings are incapable of simply going down the middle of the road; we wobble from one side to the other, going too far in this direction and then in that. Of course it's silly to consider "Oriental" racist in itself, or indicative of racism in the user, but it's equally silly to say that, that being the case, people who complain about it or pass laws about it are fools (or "reverse racists"). It is a good thing that we're moving, however inconsistently and lurchingly, in the direction of concern about the problem of racism (and other forms of prejudice), and if you accept that it's a good thing, you must also accept the inevitability of excess, of people picking fights just to show they're on the right side of the issue. If you yourself are being accused of thoughtcrime, of course, by all means fight back, but if it's just a matter of reading about amended federal legislation, well, appreciate that it's a sign of progress and don't sweat the details.

  18. Anthony said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 8:51 am

    "Oriental" as in Oriental Institute and SOAS does not, of course, denote the Far East at all in the former case and is not restricted to it in the latter. I suspect they wouldn't change their names even if this were not so.

  19. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 9:51 am

    Anthony, in its own statement on the matter, SOAS claims that the word 'Oriental' doesn't cover the Middle East (no mention is made of the fact it once did), and the justification for retaining the name is that the school isn't well known enough to coin anything new:

    Professor Mair, is it relevant that the students who protested didn't know Japanese?

  20. Lukas said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 10:14 am

    I know people who have been called "orientals" as a way of insulting them. They did find it demeaning, possibly because that was the intention of the people who called them that.

    Presumably, the idea is "I can't tell the difference between you, so to me, you're all just from the orient", though I'm not sure.

    I think it's great that there are many people who are not insulted by the term, but personally, I will avoid using it.

  21. BZ said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 10:36 am

    I have this feeling that any word describing a group of people that has been negatively singled out in the past will eventually become unacceptable as long as the group continues to be singled out unnecessarily for any reason (not necessarily a negative one), for example, pointing out someone's race when it is irrelevant to the discussion. So legislating away terms deemed derogatory will not improve the situation.

  22. languagehat said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    It won't fix the situation, but it will improve it, in that it will make a significant number of people feel as if their concerns are being addressed.

  23. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 11:06 am

    BZ, that ignores the fact that many such groups single themselves out in an effort to embrace their identity and empower themselves. 'People of Colour' springs to mind, and even 'Queer' has been reclaimed. The issue isn't the existence of such terms per se (if it were, 'Asian' would be no more acceptable than 'Oriental'); it's the context in which these terms are used and the connotations they pick up as a result. I find it telling that the nonsensical 'Caucasian' hasn't been problematised to the same extent, because those of whom it's used have never suffered the word as a slur.

  24. un malpaso said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 11:08 am

    The word "Oriental" as a reference to East Asia in general is out of style culturally and this is felt mainly in academic circles, it seems to me. The word "Orientals" used as a slur is a separate issue (although not completely) which honestly doesn't come up much at all. It smacks of conscious old-fashioned crustiness used satirically, like Mr. Burns in the Simpsons calling Chinese "Celestials."

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    Updating statutes to replace archaic-sounding lexemes with more current-sounding synonyms is certainly not ubiquitously done (e.g. many U.S. federal drug statutes still use the hilariously-old-fashioned-sounding variant spelling "marihuana"), but it seems pretty benign to the extent it is, as here, lagging and accommodating an actual already-accomplished shift in usage out there in the world, rather than trying to put a political thumb on the scales in a current usage dispute whose outcome remains uncertain.

    I would be curious as to Levantine's take on approximately how elderly one would need to be for use of the "Moslem" spelling not to be taken to be sending a particular signal. Just old enough to have had the older spelling still be standard when one was in school and building ones lexicon, or so old as to have been forgivably inflexible at the time the older spelling fell out of favor? Does social class matter (with more elite people reasonably expected to invest more of their energy in remaining au courant on such social-signalling distinctions than less elite people)? I think personally I've mostly switched from Moslem to Muslim but generally retain "Koran" in preference to "Quran" (not least because I can never remember if I'm supposed to stick extra apostrophes-for-glottal-stops or something in the latter). Am I sending mixed signals?

  26. BobW said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    I can remember when "colored" was the polite term to use, along with "negro."

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    BTW, there are precedents for the notion that "Oriental" might be perfectly okay for rugs or noodles but not for people and that such a distinction can be a stable equilibrium rather than simply an intermediate stage while the taboo widens in scope. An early player in the onomastic-grievance industry were Scottish nationalists of the 19th century, who managed to make the previously common "Scotchman" taboo, with "Scotsman" being the politically-correct replacement. The distinction between "scotch" and "scots" (which I believe were simply pronunciation/spelling variants that had arisen from the same ancestral etymon) may seem subtle, but for whatever emotional reasons were deemed significant enough to have usage/taboo controversies over. "Scotch" remains to this day a perfectly acceptable descriptor for whisk(e)y, tape, and other inanimate products, though.

  28. Theophylact said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    And, of course, the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are both alive and well.

  29. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    J.W. Brewer, I'm personally in favour of using naturalised English forms of foreign terms if those forms are still considered acceptable. Doing so reveals something of the history, extent, and nature of cross-cultural encounters and contacts. 'Vizier', for example, tells us that European languages have long had a way of referring to this post (and, if you know about Middle Eastern languages, it also shows that the word was borrowed from Ottoman Turkish rather than directly from Arabic); the pedantic 'wazir', by contrast, is unfamiliar and gives no indication of a long-standing shared history. For this reason, I would myself use 'Moslem' if doing so were an option, but it isn't. I don't quite know how or why this spelling became associated with a particular mentality, and nor can I answer your question concerning where one should draw the line, but I suppose I would say that if one is informed enough to know when a word or spelling has become problematic, one should think carefully about whether to continue using it. An American who insists that 'niggardly' is still OK because it has nothing to do with the word its sound evokes is being difficult or controversial for the sake of it; English is not lacking in perfectly good synonyms that don't startle the reader or listener.

    Because it is still acceptable, I too use 'Koran' rather than 'Qur'an' (I also translate 'Allah' as 'God', for what it's worth). By the same token, I won't use 'Farsi' while 'Persian' is still viable. Nevertheless, I recognise that attitudes to these words/spellings may well change during my lifetime, and I'd like to think that I won't be so intransigent as to insist that people are wrong for making a fuss.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    When I was learning to spell as a boy in the 1970's, Moslem seemed to me to be the standard AmEng version, with Muslim feeling like a marked UKism. And fwiw the American English and British English subcorpora in the google books n-gram viewer show Muslim becoming the majority variant a few decades earlier in the latter than the former (although suggesting that Moslem was already a minority variant in the US before I was born, which does not accord with my own impressionistic memories, but might reflect e.g. differences beween specialist/academic use and popular/journalistic use?). So to me as an AmEng user living through the shift and getting to the point where using Moslem subjectively felt marked/archaic (maybe by the early 90's?) it felt at the time more like a standardization of US and UK usage which for semi-random reasons favored the latter, not like "OMG we've got to be more sensitive." Given my generally stubborn/contrarian reactions to being told I need to change my own usage for reasons of sensitivity, I'm almost thinking I would not have gone along with the shift quite so unprotestingly had I viewed it as primarily driven by that rather than the cause of intra-Anglophone trans-Atlantic harmonization.

  31. julie lee said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

    I'm ethnically Chinese, and I still like the word "Oriental". I dislike the term "East Asian". I never felt "Oriental" was derogatory. It's the same with the words "man" (when used in the traditional meaning of "person, male or female") and "mankind" (traditionally meaning human beings). I feel "man" and "mankind" were perfectly good words meaning "person" and "human beings" respectively. I don't like "political correctness" promoters telling me what to feel, or telling me I should feel insulted when I am not, or telling me there is an insult when there is not. I dislike the word "humankind" as a replacement for "man" or "mankind".
    If the word "Oriental" is derogatory or racist, then the words "East-West" (as in "East-West" relations, "East-West Center", or "Western civilization") are also derogatory or racist, because this "East" and "West"
    is Euro-centric, ("East" being east from Europe's standpoint; whereas from the Chinese standpoint, the United States is "East" and Europe is "Far East").

  32. Bob Ladd said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

    It's worth reminding ourselves that this is not just about ethnic and religious prejudice. People get uncomfortable about all kinds of attitudes bound up with specific terms, and adjust the language accordingly. Very few linguists still talk about informants, and very few psychologists still talk about subjects.

  33. Viseguy said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 1:49 pm

    My sense is that calling someone "Oriental" is as much (or more) a way of marking him as "other" (exotic) as it is of neutrally identifying his geographic origin, which is why, I think, the term is widely regarded as derogatory (and why it's rare to hear Western speakers referring to themselves, coordinately, as "Occidentals").

    Which reminds me that when I was an Occidental tourist in Kiev I noted that the eponymous chicken dish was called "chicken metropolitan" on at least one menu.

  34. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

    julie lee, echoing what Lukas said, it's fine that there are people out there (yourself included) who don't find the term offensive. But personal or anecdotal cases really doesn't matter in the whole scheme of things; if enough people are offended, then that should mean something and lead at least to some self-reflection. Leaving aside the question of what we have to gain by such changes, is anyone really losing out when we rephrase statutes or rename university departments to reflect changing attitudes?

    Comparing 'Orient' to 'East' doesn't work. The latter is the normal word; the former now sounds exotic(ising), and if it didn't, it wouldn't be used in contexts where exotic appeal is desirable (food, rugs, medicine). You raise a good point about the very notion of 'East' and 'West' being problematic, but that's a separate issue.

  35. Stephen said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    '"Scotch" remains to this day a perfectly acceptable descriptor for whisk(e)y'

    Oh no. Scotch is whisky, never whiskey (and if you're buying I'll have a Laphroaig!).

    Of course it doesn't really matter. Both are an approximation of a Gaelic phrase.


    And I always say Farsi rather than Persian, just because a colleague for a number of years is Iranian (came to the UK to go to university) always called it that.

  36. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    Stephen, 'Farsi' is an odd case. Iranians speaking English use it, and those hearing them assume (understandably enough) that they should follow suit. I have no idea why Iranians started doing this; you don't hear Germans referring to 'Deutsch' in English, or Turks to 'Türkçe'. The preference doesn't seem to be based on any idea that 'Persian' is offensive. I've heard the argument that 'Farsi' refers specifically to the Iranian of Iran (as opposed to the varieties spoken in Afghanistan or Tajikistan), but not everyone agrees on this. The Academy of Persian Language and Literature (which is based in Iran) itself rejects foreigners' use of 'Farsi' and insists that the language be referred to by its usual foreign names.

  37. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

    In the 1940s and 1950s, the Olympic diving champion Sammy Lee was affectionately called the Oriental from Occidental (the name of the college he graduated from).

    Regarding Farsi, the OED has this quote from the Bulletin of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (1984): It may still not be too late to put an end to the grotesque affectation of applying the name ‘Farsi’ to the language which for more than five hundred years has been known to English-speakers as Persian. I think the use of 'Farsi' may have come into use around the time when Persia became (officially) Iran.

  38. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    Stephen: as it turns out, insistence that I spell whiskey differently depending on country of origin is another of those usage tics that elicits a bad reaction from the stubborn or contrarian side of my personality. I will however note for your drinking pleasure that the Kavalan distillery in Taiwan follows the e-less spelling (presumably because the Japanese did?) and is producing some pretty amazing stuff. Although unfortunately the indigenous language that shares the distillery's name is not doing so well.

  39. Chris C. said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:32 pm

    @Helen — Well, as far as that goes, I recently watched a video on YouTube where three young people of Chinese parentage explain how to tell Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans apart visually, and then test themselves by trying to tell them apart just from photographs.

    They were no better at it than I am.

  40. languagehat said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:40 pm

    julie lee, echoing what Lukas said, it's fine that there are people out there (yourself included) who don't find the term offensive. But personal or anecdotal cases really doesn't matter in the whole scheme of things; if enough people are offended, then that should mean something and lead at least to some self-reflection.

    You realize you are telling a person of the ethnicity concerned that she should practice "self-reflection" on the issue? This is exactly the kind of sanctimony that leads people to dig in their heels and/or make nasty remarks about political correctness.

  41. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:51 pm

    languagehat, I meant that *everyone* should pause to reflect, not just julie lee. But yes, 'everyone' does includes her and others of the ethnicity concerned. We should all think about the way our word choices affect others.

  42. Stephen said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:56 pm


    Yes, Farsi is an odd usage and my colleague would always the people of his country as Persian, so he had no problem with that word.

    I did not feel that I *had* to follow his usage, I just picked it up from him.

    "The Academy of Persian Language and Literature … insists that the language be referred to by its usual foreign names."

    So in English they would expect people now to call it Persian. But if the use of Farsi became common enough that it was the 'usual' name then what?

  43. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

    Stephen, I can't speak for the Academy, but I would hope that those of us who still favour 'Persian' will switch to 'Farsi' if it really does become the usual name, however reluctant we may be to do so.

  44. Stephen said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    Personally I have no dog in the whisky/whiskey fight and I don't mind what people do, hence I said it doesn't really matter.

    The Scotch Whisky Association does, AFAIUI, care quite a bit and I think that all Scotch is labelled as whisky.

    When referring to Scotch I think I am normally use whisky and when talking about Irish or American I am normally use whiskey, but if I used the 'wrong' one I would never worry about it.

  45. Aaron said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 3:16 pm

    It was Steven Pinker, wasn't it, who came up with the term "euphemism treadmill" for cases like this? Words referring to uncomfortable topics, including race, are replaced not necessarily because they are slurs or profanities – in fact, they may originally have been created and viewed as genteel options. This is not news!

  46. Chris (different Chris) said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    Ann wrote:
    "Sorry, but my initial reaction was that Trump was attracting support from senior civil servants, or possibly small oranges. The only uses I have for mandarin as a noun."

    There's a third one: Mandarin ducks, a marketing term (I think) for white domestic ducks. A local area I used to visit regularly has signs all over with pictures of white ducks on them and the single word "Mandarins". Since I have the same associations with the word that you do, I was quite baffled by this until someone explained it to me.

  47. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

    The key practical difficulty with Levantine's approach is that it's often quite difficult to tell when a tipping point has been passed and a particular term is now unacceptable, because the question is always "unacceptable to whom"? What often seems to happen in practice is that this means "unacceptable to self-appointed gatekeepers with a comparatively high degree of social/cultural power in some salient context who wish to inflict/enforce their own taboos on those with less social/cultural power." Obviously if you are speaking/writing within some sort of specific professional/social subculture it will be easier to figure out by observation what others are and aren't doing in comparable situations and thus gauge how much you will or won't stand out if you don't conform to what seems to be the relevant current norm in that particular context. But in a radically multicultural and pluralistic society there are lots and lots of different contexts that may have different local norms or no consensus as to norms.

  48. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:13 pm

    Julie Lee's comment seems to imply that, for instance, the people who objected to 'gender-neutral' man, and who have succeeded to an extent in Making it unacceptable, were men (or gender-neutral entities?), dictating to her that she should feel offended.

    But actually they were largely women, who themselves found it offensive, and rightly said so.

  49. Levantine said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:21 pm

    J.W. Brewer, you're right — it's not easily quantifiable. But when you find yourself moaning that your enjoyment of word X has been ruined by the PC-brigade, perhaps that's the point at which you should stop and ask yourself why objections are being raised to that word in the first place.

    To be clear, I don't mean to suggest that people shouldn't continue using words, forms, or spellings to which they're attached, but they should know that their choices may not always go down well with others or reflect the direction in which the language is moving. Those who are adamant that 'Oriental' is absolutely fine must be prepared to defend other words (like 'negro') that are in themselves innocuous but have become problematic through context.

    The key practical difficulty you identify in my position is a condition of English itself. Since we have no language authority telling us how to write and speak (and I'm glad we don't), linguistic changes happen unpredictably and at different paces, and not everyone is willing to go with the tide. Ultimately, we all the choice to accept what's going on around us or to hold out, but given the history of English, it's futile to behave as if words don't shift in meaning or connotation.

  50. JS said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

    Yes to euphemism treadmill, which no one has the capacity to pull the plug on but regarding which one critical change has been the rise of concerned groups themselves to the role of arbiters as concerns new candidate terms. So this book reports that "Asian American" rose to prominence due largely to the (Asian American) founders of the Asian American Political Alliance at Berkeley in the 60's. This doesn't mean the solutions are perfect (or even very sensible) or unanimous, but is as it should be. As several have pointed out, the idea that this or similar issues could be adjudicated based on analysis of the terms themselves (etymologies, etc.) is absurd.

  51. maidhc said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:27 pm

    I've never heard "Mandarin", referring to a person, mean anything other than a particular kind of government official in China, Vietnam, etc. Or by analogy, other government officials ("civil service mandarins"), although this usage is not as common in the US as in some other English-speaking countries. 100 years ago people used to call Chinese "Celestials", but once China became a republic it lost whatever sense it once had.

    My understanding of how "Mandarin" came to describe language, cuisine, etc. is that it refers to aristocratic usage surrounding the imperial court, much as we say "the Queen's English".

    In California, where we have a large Persian-American community, the usage I hear the most is Iran referring to the country, Persian referring to the culture and Farsi referring to the language. Like "You often see her on the Persian TV channel singing in Farsi, but her recordings are banned in Iran". (Our Persian TV channels come from Los Angeles, of course.) I'm not sure why they say Farsi instead of Persian for the language, but that's what they say. I think the Persian community wants to make it clear from usage that they do not necessarily support the current Iranian government. And there are other ethnic groups living in Iran, who would be Iranians but not Persians.

  52. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

    Going back to the original oddity of Miss Coulter's remark: I don't know that she would have been in a position to know that the group represented in the particular crowd were Mandarin-speakers as opposed to something else, but it does seem plausible to me that different groups of Chinese-Americans speaking different topolects might well have somewhat different political values on average – because speaking Mandarin rather than Cantonese or Taiwanese to some extent statistically correlates with when you or your family came to the U.S., what your Old-World background was, whether you or your family had lived under PRC rule or not, etc. Even if one thinks of the Han Chinese as a single ethnic group there are salient subgroups that it ought to be useful to talk about in certain contexts. But I'm not sure we have a standard/useful way of talking about that in English. "Taiwanese" works as a demonym/ethnonym and I think maybe Hakka does too, but I'm not sure that "Cantonese" works particularly well as shorthand for "that regional/cultural subset of Han Chinese who typically speak Cantonese, considered as a social/quasi-ethnic group rather than specifically as a linguistic group." Of course it may be that "Mandarin speakers" is not really a useful category we need a non-linguistic label for, because it may cover too large and varied a range of regional/cultural subgroups and thus does not form a semi-coherent whole in a quasi-ethnic way the way Taiwanese-speakers or Hakka-speakers or Cantonese-speakers might.

  53. Linda said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

    @The other Chris. I'd forgotten the duck, though a mandarin duck is a brightly coloured, ornamental duck outside of its home range (Japan I believe). The big, white farmed duck is an Aylesbury.

  54. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    JS: well, one problem is that those "concerned groups" are typically self-appointed activist busybodies who do not reliably represent the actual opinions and preferences of those they purport to speak for. The recent poll that showed 90% of actual American Indians living out there in Montana and similarly non-elite locations didn't actually care about the name of Washington DC's football team was a big story in part because many people had apparently failed to be sufficiently aware of the possibility that the activist groups that had dominated the dialogue had unrepresentative views and had thus not sufficienty discounted the weight to give those views.

  55. Ellen K. said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    You realize you are telling a person of the ethnicity concerned that she should practice "self-reflection" on the issue?

    Well, since I'm a woman, okay for me to comment on her comments on "man" and "mankind" as gender neutral? I don't agree. Grrr at that viewpoint. Using the same word for all humans and for male humans, in the same or similar contexts, is sexist. I can't not see it that way. I can respect that some don't see it that way. But someone declaring that it's just not offensive is telling me what I should fee.

  56. JS said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 6:19 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer: agreed, this being the needle jumping as the possibilities are weighed, but the key is still self-determination — the debate regarding "Native (American)" vs. "(American) Indian," etc., for example, to the extent that it is a debate takes place by definition among "self-appointed activists," but more important is that it takes place among indigenous peoples themselves. The needle on "Asian (American)" is pretty well settled in the U.S., at least for the moment…

  57. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

    Yes, I agree that "Oriental" has as an empirical matter pretty compehensively fallen out of fashion in AmEng as applied to individuals, although I certainly don't begrudge Julie Lee her personal taste for the prior fashion. I frankly don't have a good sense of how much that was driven by "self-determination" versus other factors. One key point it seems to me was the notion starting by the 1980's (and perhaps sooner) that "Asian-American" was a pretty large macro-category that could and did include people of South Asian ancestry as well as East and Southeast Asian ancestry, despite the considerable internal diversity/heterogeneity that resulted. Since e.g. Bengali-Americans don't fit (at least not according to my native-speaker intuitions, ymmv) into the relevant traditional AmEng sense of "Oriental" but do fit into "Asian-American" (although e.g. Iranian-Americans don't, despite the fact that Iran is, in fact, in Asia) it may not have just been a simple switch of term for the same referent but a change in the referent itself.

  58. Anthony said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

    In his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, Noam Chomsky called establishment-allied technocrats and academic experts Mandarins.

  59. julie lee said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 9:42 pm

    @Pflaumbaum said,
    June 2, 2016 @ 4:13 pm

    "Julie Lee's comment seems to imply that, for instance, the people who objected to 'gender-neutral' man, and who have succeeded to an extent in Making it unacceptable, were men (or gender-neutral entities?), dictating to her that she should feel offended."

    No no no no. I knew it was largely women who were telling me that I should feel offended.

  60. Jacob Li said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 9:44 pm

    It's funny that the situation with the word "Chinaman" seems to be the opposite of "Oriental": Chinese (AFAIK) find it offensive, but many non-Asians disagree and continue to use it.

    A few years ago I played a Japanese game in which there's a "東方人街" ("Oriental Street") where East Asian-looking immigrants reside. It looks like the Japanese in Japan don't find 東方人 very offensive. I'm not sure if the game has an English version released or how it is translated though.

  61. maidhc said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 10:30 pm

    There are some who say that people from what is often called the Middle East should be called West Asians. People from the subcontinent can be called South Asians. People from Vietnam, Thailand, etc. are sometimes called South-East Asians. By that token, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans could be called East Asians. I think that term has been used in the past, but I'm not sure how it is regarded today. I'm not sure how the Philippines and Indonesia would fit into this scheme either.

    I remember when I was a student and sometimes had to subsist on 5 for $1 Top Ramen, they had various flavors such as chicken, beef, and one of them was "Oriental". I'm not sure what "Oriental" was supposed to taste like. None of them tasted like the description. I think it was all just salt, soy protein and MSG.

  62. Ray said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:09 am

    listening to the clip (between matthews, coulter, and reid), it’s interesting (and dizzying!) to watch how the conversation veers all over the place, and how sign-waving becomes equated with the signallers, and how some labels are pounced upon while others are not. first, matthews slips and confusedly labels the trump supporters as “the americans,” and later corrects himself, saying he meant “the american flags” the supporters were waving (as opposed to the mexican flags being waved by the protestors). then coulter points out that matthews’ slip actually gets it right, pointing out how, despite typically negative media coverage of trump supporters, his supporters are indeed americans — but, before she can even make that last point, she makes the same kind of slip matthews just did, by equating the “written-in-mandarin signs” with “the mandarin people” waving them. meanwhile, neither matthews nor reid seem to notice or mind coulter using “hispanic,” and when matthews slips in “latino” (the term more common on the west coast, esp. in california) neither coulter nor reid seem to notice it, even though “hispanic” and “latino” are politically charged terms and not really interchangeable, esp. in a climate and conversation so fraught with labels about “us” and “them.”

    as an aside, I suspect that coulter, in typical fashion, is using a kind of political dog-whistling to signal that the “mandarin and hispanic” trump supporters aren’t some random unwashed unruly mob; “mandarin” suggests a traditional, powerful elite that “asian american” does not, just as “hispanic” suggests an old world, established immigrant that the newer term “latino” does not. reid, who characterizes the whole protest situation as being a kind of ethnic war over who’s “more legitimately american” (“this is old america versus new america,” she says), calls coulter out on “mandarin” but not on “hispanic.”

  63. Chris C. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:42 am

    @Anthony — That's actually closer to what the word means. I looked it up for the purposes of discussing this very incident elsewhere, and it's a Malay word of Hindi origin, related to "mantra", transmitted to the West via Portuguese whence its final -n, who first used it specifically with reference to Chinese officials in the days of the Malacca Sultanate. Its means any high official and is still used that way as a slang expression about, for instance, the British Civil Service. So for a member of the establishment, it's very appropriate.

    As a term for the language, I'm guessing it has to do with Mandarin being the language used by Imperial Chinese officials.

    As far as gender-neutral "man" goes, the word originally was gender-neutral. I find it somewhat absurd English-speakers must now resort to something like "human being" to refer to their own species. If I had my prescriptive way we'd revert to "man" for the species and "wer" for its male members representatives.

  64. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 2:02 am

    Jacob Li, 'Chinaman' (together with 'Chinawoman') is a perfect example of a term that shouldn't be offensive in ethnic terms (the issue of gender is separate), but nevertheless is. This is another one that proponents of 'Oriental' should be obliged to defend.

    Ray, my interpretation is less charitable. I suspect that Coulter simply didn't want to use words that smacked of progressivism. As many conservatives do, she thus chose 'Hispanic' over 'Latino', because the former hasn't yet been problematised to the extent that it's become unusable. But since 'Oriental' wasn't available to her, she opted for a curious alternative that conveyed the same point by virtue of sounding, well, Oriental.

    Chris C., and 'silly' once meant happy or blessed. Would you be flattered if someone called you this? (You may well be joking, in which case ignore this comment.)

  65. Joseph said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 2:58 am

    Report from Japan:

    Here many universities have departments in Oriental History (とうようし東洋史), which includes study of the history of the Middle East and Central Asia as well as East Asia. Japanese history is, however, traditionally a separate department, as is western/occidental history (せいようし 西洋史).

  66. Vanya said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 3:20 am

    An American who insists that 'niggardly' is still OK because it has nothing to do with the word its sound evokes is being difficult or controversial for the sake of it;

    That is unfair. Some people really are just bothered by what they consider willful ignorance or stupidity. 'Country' is also an offensive sounding word, to say nothing of "chink", "heebie-jeebies" or "spick and span".

  67. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 3:32 am

    Vanya, it is not unfair. 'Country' is a normal word we hear all the time, and in meaning overlaps with, but is not necessarily the same as, other terms. 'Niggardly' is neither usual nor semantically unique, and there is evidence to suggest that its use has risen recently at the hands of those who are trying to make a point by keeping it alive. The point they're making is at best petty ('You can't tell me which words I can't use!'), and at worst wilfully offensive.

  68. RP said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 3:39 am

    J. W. Brewer noted that replacing "archaic-sounding lexemes with more current-sounding synonyms" is benign in this and similar cases. However, what about the potential for accidental changes in meaning? Elsewhere in this thread, it was also noted that "Asian-American" has a much broader potential meaning than "Oriental" does. I think that several of the other terms aren't exact synonyms either.

  69. David Marjanović said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 4:26 am

    My sense is that calling someone "Oriental" is as much (or more) a way of marking him as "other" (exotic) as it is of neutrally identifying his geographic origin, which is why, I think, the term is widely regarded as derogatory (and why it's rare to hear Western speakers referring to themselves, coordinately, as "Occidentals").

    It has that in common with "Negro".

    A few years ago I played a Japanese game in which there's a "東方人街" ("Oriental Street") where East Asian-looking immigrants reside. It looks like the Japanese in Japan don't find 東方人 very offensive.

    That may be because 東方 is the ordinary, unremarkable expression for "east"; it's not a special learned word like "orient(al)". So, in this game, "East people" live on "East-People Street"…

  70. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 4:30 am

    Professor Mair, is it relevant that the students who protested didn't know Japanese?

    I was on a plane without wi-fi for 12 hours, so am only now seeing this remark and all the others after it.

    There were students — including Japanese from Japan, Japanese Americans, Americans, Europeans, and others — studying Japanese language, literature, and culture who were proud to be in the Department of Oriental Studies and who resented the fact that outsiders from other departments occupied our offices and were telling them that "oriental" was derogatory. They felt just the opposite about it.

    My recollection is that the students who agitated against the name of our department were inspired by a combination of Edward Said's anti-Orientalism and Asian American activism from Berkeley (as noted by JS).

    In any event, I was responding to Lane, who asked: "Victor, were the students protesting 'Oriental' themselves Asian or Asian-American?" I could have just said, "They were Asian-Americans", but felt that would be impoverished (the first word I actually thought of to say here — without wanting to taunt anyone! — has apparently now been outlawed in certain circles) reply, and thought it germane and potentially fruitful to the discussion to add that they did not speak Japanese, especially in light of the fact that they were protesting against a department in which there were Japanese and Japanese Americans who were studying Japanese. I never imagined that anyone would take objection to that extra bit of pertinent information.

  71. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 4:31 am

    From Online Etymology Dictionary:

    niggardly (adj.) Look up niggardly at
    1560s, from niggard + -ly (1).

    It was while giving a speech in Washington, to a very international audience, about the British theft of the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon. I described the attitude of the current British authorities as "niggardly." Nobody said anything, but I privately resolved — having felt the word hanging in the air a bit — to say "parsimonious" from then on. [Christopher Hitchens, "The Pernicious Effects of Banning Words,", Dec. 4, 2006]

    As an adverb from 1520s. Related: Niggardliness.

  72. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 4:52 am

    Professor Mair, I asked precisely because the information did not (and still does not) seem pertinent to me. To mention it at all is to imply that these undividuals are less qualified to call for change because they are not steeped in 'Oriental' studies. But their protest was not one related only or even mainly to the scholarly use of the word; they were responding, rather, to shifts in wider usage that, even if inflected by Edward Said (who was dealing with another Orient entirely), began before the publication of his book.

  73. Nathan said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 5:54 am

    @maidhc That's an interesting point about the political connotations of "Farsi" and "Persian" in California. Growing up among the Canadian Bahá'í community, I only ever heard the ones from Iran refer to themselves as Persians, never Iranians: As Wikipedia says on Iranian Americans, "There is a tendency among Iranian-Americans to categorize themselves as 'Persian' rather than 'Iranian', mainly to disassociate themselves from the Iranian government and the negativity associated with it," and I can imagine that would go doubly in a refugee community. Persian Bahá'ís in Canada called the language Persian in general conversation – Farsi would have sounded pointedly academic to my ears, in a mixed group.

    Similarly, the first Burmese refugee I ever met, in Japan in the 90s, told me straightforwardly that calling the country Myanmar instead of Burma made you sound like a sympathizer of the regime. I've always been interested in how the acceptability of those words might be changing, with the political thaw there, and at the same time the greater awareness of violence against non-Burman peoples in the country?

  74. richardelguru said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 5:57 am

    Chris C
    "As far as gender-neutral "man" goes, the word originally was gender-neutral. ….. If I had my prescriptive way we'd revert to "man" for the species and "wer" for its male members …"
    or perhaps 'wǣpenedman', depending on how you take 'wǣpen'.

  75. V said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 6:21 am

    Interesting. In Bulgarian, the etymologycal equivalents of "musulmani" or, more formally, "mohammedan" is the normal, polite term, while "muslim" is a bit of a recently-arisen term used by far-right groups, borrowed from English.

  76. Brian Spooner said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 6:36 am

    farsi began to be used in English in the 1970s. To say farsi rather than Persian became the "in" thing to do. I was in and out of Iran (speaking Persian) from the late 1950s onwards. America's support for the Shah and the number of Americans working in Iran was increasing gradually in the 60s and even faster in the 70s (leading indirectly to the revolution in 1979). In the early 70s I began to notice Americans (who were rarely able to speak Persian to any useful degree) talking about farsi instead of Persian. Interesting to compare this phenomenon with names for countries. Reza Shah in 1935 required that his country from then on be called Iran rather than Persia in all diplomatic correspondence. I think the next similar case was Burkina Faso for Upper Volta, and now we have Myanmar for Burma. But a name on a map is different from the name of a language, and should not be used as a supporting argument for the use of farsi in English.

  77. Brian Spooner said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 7:33 am

    I should have added: the reason we used to call Iran Persia (and some of us still do) is that all we knew about it before 19th century when the British got interested in it from India we had learned from Herodotus (because classics was the basis of Western education). farsi is an arabicised version of parsi (Arabic has no /p/. Both farsi and Persia(n) come from Pars, the province of southern Iran (provincial centre = Shiraz), where the Achaemenian capital was located (which we know by the Greek name Perse-polis). farsi gets its name from its geographical origin Pars, and the Greeks saw that location as the origin of the people they ran the Marathon to fight.

  78. Ellen K. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 9:42 am

    @Chris C. I find it somewhat absurd English-speakers must now resort to something like "human being" to refer to their own species.

    Human or humans works just fine; a two word phrase isn't necessary.

    Ngrams shows "humans" as passing "human beings" in usage in 1980.

  79. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 10:52 am

    Ellen K.: what about compounds? Firehuman? Policehuman? Chairhuman?

  80. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 10:59 am

    Trying to figure out why Miss Coulter made the odd remark she did, it strikes me as very parallel to having just noticed a bunch of attendees at a political rally holding signs in Persian/Farsi (here you have to hypothesize a level of sophistication necessary to know they weren't in Arabic or Urdu or some other thing with the same or similar script), referring to the language aloud while describing the situation as Farsi rather than Persian, and then referring a sentence or two later to the people who had been holding the signs as "Farsis." That would obviously be a mistake, but a fairly plausible one (and if you knew in the back of your mind there was an ethnoreligious group standardly called in English "Parsees" with some sort of historical connection to the place-where-they-speak-Farsi your odds of a screwup/brainfart might be increased?). Whether you would acknowledge the mistake once challenged versus double down and bluster your way forward might depend on your personality and if you had Miss Coulter's personality you might well do the latter.

    If Miss Coulter had shared the common misconception that there's a "language" called "Chinese" she would have avoided embarassment, so what got her in trouble was knowing enough to know that written "Chinese" especially in a U.S. context is typically-to-invariably MSM, which is often readable by L1 speakers of other Sinitic topolects but is not the written form of their own L1's. Maybe she's been reading Language Log in her free time?

  81. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 10:59 am

    Firefighter, police officer, chairperson?

  82. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 10:59 am

    Firefighter, police officer, chairperson?

  83. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 11:47 am

    It might be that Levantine's list of alternatives are all longer in syllable count than the deprecated words because of the coincidence that -man is a monosyllable so the ex ante odds that any potential replacement would also be monosyllabic are low, but I wonder if increased syllable count is a common badge of euphemism? That the alternatives are (at the margin) more burdensome to use might be a feature rather than a bug to the extent their purpose is to signal ones virtue or display ones accumulation of cultural capital. Although I suppose professional jargon used to signal group membership and/or mystify outsiders is a mix of gratuitously polysyllabic terms on the one hand and terse-and-thus-efficient-if-you-are-in-the-know clippings/initialisms on the other.

    Euphemism and in-group jargon are, of course, ubiquitous features of human language, so to point out particular instances is not necessarily to suggest they ought to be criticized or suppressed.

  84. RP said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

    I know the etymology, but in practice, for most speakers, "man" isn't gender-neutral as a suffix. For instance, I have occasionally known "chairman" to designate a woman, but I have never seen or heard "policeman" used to designate a woman. And if there two police officers – one male, one female – next to each other, I would be astonished to hear them described as "those two policemen".

    In many cases, "chair" can be used instead of "chairperson", and is nice and short. The supposed ambiguity is largely imaginary or theoretical.

    Looking at ngrams, it's remarkable how rapidly "humankind" has gained ground over the last few decades. "Mankind" is still easily the winner, but for how long, I wonder?

  85. Rube said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

    "In many cases, "chair" can be used instead of "chairperson", and is nice and short. The supposed ambiguity is largely imaginary or theoretical."

    "Chair" and "vice-Chair" are what we use for legislative drafting in Ontario, and I've never hear anyone complain that we are giving authority to a piece of furniture.

  86. Ellen K. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

    @Coby, I was replying to a comment on the term "human beings". It should be understood, in the context of what I was replying to, that "human" works just fine where "human beings" is used in place of "men" or "man kind" or "man".

  87. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

    Can linguistic conservatives accept 'policewoman' (attested mid-C19) and 'chairwoman' (attested late C17) if the gender-neutral forms are really so objectionable to them? ('Firewoman' isn't one I've ever come across.)

  88. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    J.W. Brewer, is it correct to call my suggestions euphemisms at all? 'Restroom' is a euphemism for 'toilet' (itself once a euphemism), but the words I listed are actually doing something that their gendered counterparts cannot. As RP pointed out, no native speaker of English is going to hear 'two policemen' and think it could be referring to anything other than two men, which means that the genderless alternative of 'police officers' is fulfilling a real linguistic need rather than functioning as a genteelism.

    As for cases that might more convincingly be dubbed euphemisms, both 'Muslim' and 'Asian' are shorter than 'Mohammedan' and 'Oriental'.

  89. Steve T said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

    In his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, Noam Chomsky called establishment-allied technocrats and academic experts Mandarins.
    That was in 1969, btw. Chris C may be right about the origin of the sociological meaning of "Mandarin," but I think that Max Weber probably made it popular.

  90. January First-of-May said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 6:47 pm

    Interesting. In Bulgarian, the etymologycal equivalents of "musulmani" or, more formally, "mohammedan" is the normal, polite term, while "muslim" is a bit of a recently-arisen term used by far-right groups, borrowed from English.

    Similarly, in Russian, the normal word is (essentially) "musulmanin" (plural "musulmane"), while "muslim" is a slur.
    We don't use any cognate of "mohammedan", though (the only one I could think of, "magometyanin", is extremely archaic).

  91. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

    January First-of-May and V, Turkish too uses the (probably) Persian-derived 'Mussulman' as the normal word in the form 'Müslüman'. I don't think I've ever encountered 'Müslim' in speech or writing, though it's in the dictionaries.

  92. Lazar said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 7:59 pm

    I've noticed that Christiane Amanpour – who was born to a Muslim father and Christian mother, both from Iran – appears to be a holdout in using at least the spoken form "Moslem" (with /ɒ/, rather than the /ʊ/ preferred in BrEng or the /ʌ/ preferred in AmEng).

  93. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

    Lazar, that may be because she's following the norms of Persian pronunciation, where Arabic short U and I become O and E. There are a couple of places in Iran called (and romanised) 'Moslemabad'.

  94. Ray said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 8:39 pm

    this is all so deliciously complicated! it’s like watching a power struggle unfolding between those who believe they have always strived to be culturally/ethically sensitive and those who believe their current embrace of cultural/ethnic sensitivity now trumps others’ attempted sensitivity. because why: correctness? precision? currency?

    where does levantine stand on 'actor' vs 'actress'? at today's oscar ceremonies? and where does j.w. brewer stand on coulter’s use of exacting language to generate soundbites in order to inform/shape today's discussion about immigration? and how, at the end of the day, should we (correctly, currently) listen to levantine's precision or j.w. brewer's precision?

  95. Chris C. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 9:05 pm

    @Levantine — I'm semi-joking, although as Coby points out, rehabilitating "man" would allow us use of the traditional compounds without sounding (or being) sexist.

  96. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 9:38 pm

    Ray, I'll take the bait despite your derisive tone. I've made it very clear in my comments that my approach is not precise, if by precise you mean something that advocates clearly defined rules. My position in these matters is descriptivist rather that prescriptivist. Every word has to be judged on its own merits, and it's up to each of us to decide whether to continue using it or not. In some cases ('Negro', for example), the decision is easy; in others, it isn't. 'Actress' is one instance of a word that confuses me. I find myself using it because it remains widespread, but there are times (around certain female friends) where I might substitute '[woman] actor', and the day may come when I stop using it altogether.

    Unless we are entirely shielded from the rest of society (and no-one using the internet really has that excuse), we all have some idea of how certain words affect those who hear or read them, and how meanings and connotations can and do change with time. What we do with that information is up to us, but those who cling to terms that (perhaps for no good or logical reason) have become offensive to many should at least be honest about what they're doing. To use 'niggardly' after all the controversy surrounding it and maintain that you are not courting the inevitable reaction it will elicit is, quite simply, disingenuous.

  97. Levantine said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

    Chris C., are the extra syllables in, say, 'policewoman' or 'police officer' really such a burden? I personally wish we could resurrect 'thou' so that we would again have a distinct second-person singular pronoun, but it ain't gonna happen!

  98. Chris C. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

    @Levantine — Burden? That's not up to me; it's up to English-speakers as a whole. If they find the extra syllables inconvenient, the words will be shortened in due course, assuming they persist in the forms you've suggested. Some of them simply grate; I recognize that's a matter of taste and I'm not going to argue it.

    But then, your examples aren't equivalent terms. "Policeman" (with anthropos-man, not andros-man) is more general. "Police officer" in the US is usually not generic, but is the actual name of the lowest rank in a police force. Calling a police sergeant an "officer" would be an insult, or is at the very least wrong.

  99. Chris C. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 10:52 pm

    I agree about "thou" by the way. Back when I was a religious believer and was Eastern Orthodox, I was squarely on the side of those preferring Early Modern English translations of the services rather than contemporary English, precisely because "thou" made a clear theological point, disguised by "you", when addressing the Trinity.

    Distinguishing second person pronouns by number is clearly a felt need in some dialects, hence the American South's "y'all" for plurals with "you" relegated to the singular.

  100. julie lee said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 12:12 am

    @Ray, @ Levantine:

    "actor" vs "actress"

    I can't help adding this bit: Robert Mitchum was a Hollywood star of the 1940s and 1950s, known especially in film noir and westerns, a fine but laid-back actor, and a real he-man. Early on, after bumming around, he finally got hired by Hollywood to play in B-westerns. Always self-deprecating, he came home and told his wife: "Guess what, I just got a job. I'm going to be an actress."

  101. Levantine said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 4:56 am

    Chris C., perhaps other US police forces would feel differently, but the LAPD at least is happy enough to use 'officer' in both its general and its specific sense:

    So no, it isn't wrong or insulting, and it's certainly safer than referring to a mixed group as 'policemen'.

    julie lee, thanks for sharing that amusing and telling story!

  102. Lazar said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:32 am

    (Correction to my above comment: Amanpour's mother is English.)

  103. Guy said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

    On the subject of "firefighter", is it true, as some seem to assume, that the word was invented to be a gender-neutral form of "fireman"? I've always assumed it was another common pre-existing form that simply was happily gender-neutral.

    @Chris C.

    It's not just "y'all", virtually every English dialect has some (often optional) common way of specifying plural reference in "you". In my speech, I've noticed that plural reference "you" is almost always "you guys". While we're on the subject of gender-neutrality, for me, "guys" is gender-neutral when modifying "you" or as a vocative, but definitely not when used in other contexts. "Three guys were waiting outside" can only mean three men. I think this is the same for most other people.

  104. Guy said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 3:05 pm

    Incidentally, although I feel (and many seem to agree) that English words like "policemen" and "chairmen" can only refer to men, am I correct in assuming that those who feel differently agree that "policeman" and "fireman" cannot refer to a specified female individual? This raises a difference between gender in English and Spanish, which I suppose is a reflection of the fact that Spanish nouns that refer to animates inflect for gender whereas gender is lexically encoded in English. In Spanish, plural masculine is the default form for plurals that encompass both genders, but this doesn't usually work in English, and a legitimately gender-neutral noun is usually required (I understand "men" to mean "humans" as something that's only possible in consciously poetic or archaic registers). This sometimes leads to mistakes by native Spanish speakers learning English like using "boyfriends" to mean "boyfriend and girlfriend" or "brothers" to mean "siblings". I have at least one instance in my experience where I got the misimpression that I was having a conversation about a gay couple because of the former usage.

  105. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

    Guy: One interesting consequence of that is the way that 'Los Reyes' (literally 'the Kings') can mean 'the King and Queen' – likewise with expressions like 'the Dukes', etc.

    Regarding 'firefighter', my sense is that it did pre-exist the disuse of 'fireman', but meant something rather different, someone who turns out to fight a forest fire or the like, rather than a professional or long-term volunteer.

  106. Ray said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 7:28 pm

    @leviathan: my use of the word 'precision' has to do with precision as to one's take on the current socio-political climate, expressed through word choice. (this is what coulter's 'precision' challenges, and others, with their own 'precision,' denounce, thus creating the contest between whose precision is more correct. language is power and power is language, after all.) at the end of the day, we're basically watching a power struggle (on here and on cnn), using words as artillery. (not derisive, but ironic: we all get swept into the warfare of words, even as we try to explain others' warfare of words.)

    @julie lee: (from imdb): "While at RKO Radio Pictures, Mitchum became the first male movie star to refuse to shave his chest for shirtless roles. In order to avoid that, he allowed himself to develop a pot belly to avoid having to take his shirt off at all." LOL

  107. Ray said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

    (sorry, not cnn: rather msnbc)

  108. Levantine said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 7:38 pm


    Anyway, my take is far from precise, because the whole business is extremely messy, contested, subjective, and variable. If there is a power struggle going on (and I wouldn't quite put it that way), it's one that affects all aspects of English (e.g., infinitive-splitters and their detractors), not just the language of political correctness. We all have our own take on things; all I'm arguing is that we should be as informed and honest in our choices as possible.

  109. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

    "Fireman" was also the name of a now archaic profession typically involving shoveling coal into coal-fired engines or furnaces. I believe maybe BrEng for this was "stoker"? Some guys in the firefighting profession have for many many decades apparently preferred "firefighter" to "fireman" for their profession to avoid confusion with the other profession which they regarded as lower status, with gender politics having nothing to do with it.

    Re syllable count, "Oriental" (which I have no particular brief for because it was already out of favor before my own personal usage was developed to the point where shifts were irksome to accommodate) is shorter than "Asian-American." The tendency to use "Asian" as a clipped form for "Asian-American" is natural yet problematic, since it can be pretty insulting to call someone who was born and raised in the U.S. an "Asian" based on their skin color and the inferred geographical origin of their ancestors. I agree with Levantine that these things are complicated and it's hard to take a single overall approach, but it seems imprudent to me to ignore the costs side of the ledger. And to the extent it's often most sensible to be practically descriptivist in the sense of taking cues from others around us and neither changing a lot faster than them nor sticking to the old usage after most of them have changed, we have the problem that we don't all move in the same circles and we are all prone to mistaking our own immediate circles for a representative sample of the broader language community.

  110. julie lee said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 8:35 pm


    Thanks for the bit about Robert Mitchum. It says something about Mitchum and about Hollywood.

  111. Levantine said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 9:00 pm

    J.W. Brewer, I was under the impression that Americans who still use 'Oriental' would apply it to any person who is ethnically (East) Asian, whether American or not; that is why I gave 'Asian' as the synonym.

    And yes, I agree about the danger of taking one's own social circle as representative. These things are extremely variable, both within and across different varieties of English. Before I moved to the States for graduate school, I (as a Brit) thought nothing was wrong with the word 'Oriental', though I didn't myself use it. My current position (which I think is substantiated by the comments here) is that the word remains fairly widespread and is innocuous to many, but that enough people find it offensive that those not wishing to invite an adverse reaction would be well advised to consider a different term. I think it's telling that the rewritten legislation that prompted Tsuchiyama's op-ed retained 'Hispanic' (objectionable to many progressives) even as it replaced 'Oriental'. This, combined with the avoidance of the word even in conservative media (, suggests that we have already reached the tipping point as far as the future of 'Oriental' goes.

  112. hector said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 9:26 pm

    Re "firefighter" vs. "fireman" ("Some guys in the firefighting profession have for many many decades apparently preferred "firefighter" to "fireman" for their profession to avoid confusion with the other profession which they regarded as lower status"):

    I suspect those who preferred "firefighter" may have done so because fighting fires is what they did; a "fireman" in the other context is someone who starts and keeps fires going.

  113. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 2:44 am

    …suggests that we have already reached the tipping point as far as the future of 'Oriental' goes.

    Let's just wait and see what happens.

  114. Levantine said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 4:36 am

    Professor Mair, when a Fox News presenter objects to the word (see the link in my previous post), you're fighting a losing battle. What does 'Oriental' offer that it's replacements don't/can't?

  115. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 5:35 am

    I'm not fighting any battle. I'm just saying that we should wait and see what happens.

  116. Anthony said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 7:04 am

    In the U.S. Air Force, "airman" is used equally of men and women.

  117. Jenny Chu said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 2:23 am

    I'm coming to the conversation a bit late but wanted to throw in two points:

    1. Because general knowledge about Chinese languages is becoming more widespread – especially with, for example, the popularity of Mandarin tutors for privileged children – the knowledge that "you can't just say 'Chinese'" is getting more widespread. But the details get a little garbled sometimes. For example, even my most conscientious and well-meaning colleagues from Europe end up saying things like, "Do we need to post the website text both in Simplified Mandarin and Traditional Mandarin characters?" So it is my suspicion that Coulter is well aware that the word "Chinese" is very/too broad, and was trying to use a word that refers to "people from PRC" – what we in Hong Kong call "mainlanders" – and, casting about for the right word, thus hit on "Mandarins".

    2. (Self-)identification by language is a charming characteristic of the very young. We live in Hong Kong, with people from many nationalities and origins. My son, when he was about 4, told me he'd met a new friend at the park named something like Yasuko Takahashi, who was "English". When he affirmed that she was indeed English ("Yes – she speaks English!") I asked him if he himself (an American of mixed Vietnamese and European ancestry) was English. "Yes!" he told me. "I'm English and Chinese – I can speak both." Other parents of expat kids (French, British, Korean, whatever) who speak Chinese and English have told me similar stories.

  118. Ray said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 7:37 am

    omg I can't believe I typed "leviathan" — so sorry! (I can't even blame spell-checker, since I don't even use a spell checker). as a token of my contrition, here's a little gift:

    Eye have a spelling chequer,
    It came with my Pea Sea.
    It plane lee marks four my revue
    Miss Steaks I can knot sea.

    Eye strike the quays and type a whirred
    And weight four it two say
    Weather eye am write oar wrong
    It tells me straight a weigh.

    Eye ran this poem threw it,
    Your shore real glad two no.
    Its vary polished in its weigh.
    My chequer tolled me sew.

    A chequer is a bless thing,
    It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
    It helps me right all stiles of righting,
    And aides me when eye rime.

    Each frays come posed up on my screen
    Eye trussed too bee a joule.
    The chequer pours o'er every word
    Two cheque sum spelling rule.

    — Jerrold H. Zar

  119. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 11:38 am

    J.W. Brewer: 'Fireman' (in the railway sense) was used in the UK as well; there is a trade union which is I think still officially called 'the Amalgamated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen'.

  120. ajay said,

    June 8, 2016 @ 7:39 am

    Yes, I believe "stoker" was used on ships and "fireman" on trains.

    (Policeman/policewoman/police officer keeps catching characters out in the very good "Hot Fuzz":

    "When did you decide you wanted to be a policeman?"
    "When did you decide you wanted to be a policeman, officer?")

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