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When I started taking Mandarin in the fall of 1967, one of the first words we learned was "Zhōngguó rén 中國人".  A classmate of mine translated that as "Chinaman", provoking our teaching assistant to reprimand him severely, saying that it was a racist term, and to give him a stern lecture about the history of anti-Chinese discrimination in the United States.

Now a West Virginia candidate for the US Senate, Don Blankenship, has fallen into the same trap by referring to the Asian-American father-in-law of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a "China person" (see here, here, and here for news reports).

With his customary thoroughness, Ben Zimmer studies the history of the "Chinaman" epithet and explains why "Chinaperson" is not a viable alternative.  See:

"‘Chinaperson’ and the Sanitization of a Racial Slur:  A Republican Senate candidate in West Virginia recently put a 21st century spin on the vintage epithet", The Atlantic (4/26/18).

Chinaperson? Blankenship’s characterization of Chao’s Chinese American father, the businessman James S.C. Chao, was something of a linguistic feat: simultaneously evoking the old slur of Chinaman and ham-handedly attempting to sanitize it. One can almost hear Blankenship hit the edit button halfway through the word, thinking he’d avoid a political faux pas by switching to the gender-neutral–person.

If you want to know how "Chinaman" was transformed from a more-or-less neutral reference, such as "Frenchman" or "Englishman", into a weaponized slur against individuals of Chinese background, Zimmer's account details the stages it went through — beginning around the middle of the 19th century —  to become an out-and-out pejorative.

I recall when it was perfectly natural to call the head of an academic department a "chairman", then gradually — during the 70s — it fell out of fashion.  But what to replace it with?  There was a stage when it seemed all right to call the head of a department a "chairperson", but now I never hear anyone using that expression.  Indeed, I probably haven't heard anyone using the word "chairperson" for several decades.  The head of a department is simply the "chair".


  1. Stephen Hart said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:36 pm

    "The head of a department is simply the "chair".
    Who is, presumably, also a "suit."

  2. JB said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 8:55 pm

    On being reminded that Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature, one is inevitably reminded of this classic scene in the Big Lebowski:

  3. R said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 11:01 pm

    My Midwestern father grew up saying things like "a Chinaman's chance" and did not know it was offensive until moving away. There were no Asians in his hometown, so I assume language relating to minorities changed much more slowly than average. I'm happy to report that we have finally gotten him out of the habit of calling East Asians "Oriental."

  4. stephen said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 11:08 pm

    Amazon lists lots of books with "chinaman" in the title.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 12:11 am

    It bears mentioning here that 中国人 is a standard Chinese term for a Chinese person, and that it translates very literally as 中国 "China" 人 "person".

  6. Daniele Brigadoi Cologna said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 12:45 am

    “Chinaman” as a racial slur is usually translated as 中国佬 Zhōngguólǎo. An even more problematic and offensive term that can translate “chinaman” is 支那人 Zhīnàrén, which was used as a derogary term during the Japanese Empire’s occupation of China.

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 2:27 am

    I'd been told "Chinaman" originated as a calque of [i]hanren[/i]. Is this incorrect?

  8. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 2:28 am

    Gah, that should have been html …

  9. David Marjanović said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 4:12 am

    The head of a department is simply the "chair".

    I wonder, BTW, if that's backformed from the verb ("to chair a session", ?"to chair a department").

  10. Phil Jennings said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 4:34 am

    On the British panel shows I see via YouTube, the panelists, all very urbane and educated, use 'Chinaman' without seeming to be aware that it's an offensive term. They also use 'twat' quite freely, although perhaps dimly conscious that it wouldn't be countenanced on American TV.

  11. Ursa Major said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 4:53 am

    In cricket, a 'chinaman' is the name of the stock delivery bowled by a left-arm unorthodox spin bowler. It is quite rare for a person to be able to bowl such a ball so the term isn't used very frequently and there is never enough momentum built up to have a proper conversation about it. When someone reaches enough prominence that the word gets used in the media (usually somewhat self-consciously) there is round of tutting that dies down for a few years until the next time.

  12. David Morris said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 5:58 am

    Wouldn't the equivalent of 'Chinaman' be 'Englandman' or 'Franceman' (which, to the best of my knowledge, no-one ever uses)?

  13. David Morris said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 5:58 am

    Wouldn't the equivalent of 'Chinaman' be 'Englandman' or 'Franceman' (which, to the best of my knowledge, no-one ever uses)?

  14. Paul M said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 6:10 am

    The first to be called “chinamen” were actually Britishers of the 1700s, those who distributed ceramics from the Far East. For a specific reference, the occupation of "chinaman" was documented in a book titled “A General Description of All Trade," published 1747.

    Adopted in the 19th century to describe males from China, it was most commonly reference in a neutral way. Perhaps interestingly, the nickname "John Chinaman" provided a new twist around mid-century. While seemingly derogatory, it was offered as an equivalent to "John Bull," the average Britisher that was written about in newspapers. In his book of correspondences, London journalist George Wingrove Cooke referenced the figure also as "Sir John Fathead."

    The modern-day American equivalent would be "Joe Sixpack," so we get what was meant by the titles.

    To be frank, I find the argument that "Chinaman" was an *early* epithet to be rather specious. As late as the 1970s (possibly even the 1980s) we have examples in popular culture of the term being as respectful as a speaker wished it to be.

    As an example, consider these lyrics from Todd Rundgren's song "All the Children Sing" (1978)

    Here's to the Chinaman, wise and old
    Here's to the Eskimo, brave and cold
    Here's to the Jew in the holy land
    Here's to the Arab in his caravan
    Here's to the African, strong and proud

    If we are going to allow negative examples to draw a point, we should also consider neutral and positive notes. Of course, this is a larger subject than can be addressed in a blog post, or in related comment.

  15. RP said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 6:25 am

    Other than in its cricket sense, the term "Chinaman" is considered offensive in Britain too, pace Phil Jennings.

  16. Saurs said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 6:40 am

    Why should British panel shows care about American television?

    Anyway, Chinaman was never the equivalent of Frenchman. You're thinking of Franceman, which never existed, and there in part is one reason for the term being objectionable.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 7:03 am

    The google books n-gram viewer shows a peak for "Chinaman" circa 1902 then a secondary peak circa 1922 and then steady decline until evening out at a much lower level of usage by the early 1960's. What I find puzzling is the fairly steep decline in the '20's and '30's, which seems rather too early for any increase in sensitivity about the possibly offensive connotations of the word to be the driving force. Maybe there was just less occasion (at least in the U.S.) to mention the referent, as the long-term effects of the strong ban against further Chinese immigration plus passage of time during a period when the U.S. population was still rapidly expanding as the result of other immigrant flows predictably drove down the percentage of the population of that ethnicity?

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 7:19 am

    Separately, the old cliche "Chinaman's chance" has embedded in it a stereotypical assumption that whether in the old country or in the U.S. the median or prototypical Chinaman has been dealt a pretty lousy hand in life as compared to the more fortunate median or prototypical white American. But I'm not sure if it's accurate to assume that the expression was predominantly used by bigots, i.e. those who thought that the lousier odds of success generally available to the Chinese were right or just or natural. It could equally well be used by those who felt some genuine sympathy (of the "poor sucker never had a chance" variety) toward those with the misfortune to face such long odds of success in a difficult and arbitrary world due to the accident of their birth and ancestry. The old cliche "think of the starving Armenians" said to US children who failed to eat all the food on their plate, for example, presumably came out of an underlying sympathy (perhaps cluelessly or patronizingly expressed, and for all I know perhaps irksome to actual Armenians) for the plight of the Armenians, not out of anti-Armenian bigotry. Obviously the empirical accuracy of the embedded stereotypical assumption in "Chinaman's chance" has deteriorated over time in a U.S. context. These days Chinese-Americans have higher median household income than white Americans, which was not the case a century ago.

  19. JB said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 8:03 am

    What about the heathen Chinee?

  20. Marc Foster said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 8:36 am

    Kind of off topic, but I had never heard of "starving Armenians". The starving children from my childhood were either in China or India. Is there some regional variation in the ethnicity of the stereotypical starving children?

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 8:55 am

    I was invoking what may now be an archaism like "Chinaman's chance." As one secondary source puts it (published 1997, possibly without the benefit of rigorous modern corpus-linguistics research): "From the 1920s through the 1950s, the suffering of the Armenians became a familiar strain to the Western world. Mothers encouraged their children to 'remember the starving Armenians' and eat all their food."

  22. Ellen K. said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 9:20 am

    Seems to me that changing Chinaman to Chinaperson fixes the genderism of the term "chinaman", but, precisely because it's a gender-neutral variation of "chinaman", it can be seen as equivalent to "chinaman" and carrying the negativity of the term "chinaman".

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 9:27 am

    In terms of what was problematic about Blankenship's statement, I think perhaps that his poor choice of ethnic descriptor should not obscure a separate word-choice problem. Many such descriptors, in a U.S. context, are potentially ambiguous, because they can either refer to the nationality of a foreigner or the ethnicity of an American. In many contexts, referring to for example the current governor of New York (Andrew Cuomo) as "Italian" will be understood as a purely ethnic reference. In those contexts it is not necessary to use the longer and clunkier "Italian-American" to clarify that one is not suggesting that the governor is some sort of shifty or disloyal foreigner who isn't 100% American. But in a context where a prominent Italian-American is being accused of having suspiciously close ties to controversial and powerful figures over in Italy who are widely perceived as potentially pursuing an agenda hostile to American interests it would, I think, be highly advisable to say "Italian-American" rather than "Italian," or just leave out the explicit ethnic descriptor altogether (if only because mentioning the surname will probably be a subtler but equally effective way of conveying the same point). Unless of course you actually intend to be making a charge of dual or conflicted loyalty driven by ethnic solidarity, have no objection if your statement is taken that way, and are willing to tell the people who take offense to go pound sand.

  24. Alyssa said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 10:09 am

    It seems very unlikely to me that "Chinaperson" was an intentional phrasing. It's more likely that he was trying to think up some way to say "person from China" or "Chinese national" and that's what his mind came up with on the fly.

    Or, to be less charitable, he thought "Chinaman", attempted to correct himself to "Chinese person", but ended up blending the two.

    Also, it's interesting that reporters are forced to make an assumption about his intentions here, because the choice to transcribe what he said as "China person" vs "Chinaperson" implies a different interpretation.

  25. KevinM said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 10:34 am

    Your reference to "chair" is suggestive. I imagine the speaker was probably circumlocuting on the fly. Substituting *person for "man might have stemmed from the speaker's vague sense that this is how you launder an offensive term (where, of course, the objection is that the term is sexist, not racially or ethnically offensive).

  26. Draconaes said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 10:58 am

    @Marc Foster
    The prototypical example I've always heard was "There are starving children in Africa". I wonder what variations on that might be regional as opposed to generational, or perhaps there are other factors.

  27. m said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

    About those lyrics cited by "Paul M said" (the lyrics from Todd Rundgren's song "All the Children Sing") — aren't those ALL racist stereotypes? That's how they strike me.

  28. Levantine said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

    Phil Jennings, "Chinaman" is not OK in British English either; I suspect the panelists are using it in tongue-in-cheek fashion (though I think they'd do well to avoid it altogether). "Twat" is an interesting one. I (a Brit) has no idea what it meant before I moved to the States in my 20s. Until then, I simply thought it was a harsher way of saying "twit". I believe David Cameron got in trouble a few years back for the same reason.

  29. Bob Ladd said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    One purely linguistic source of the problem with Chinaman is hinted at in J. W. Brewer's comment above about the nuances of calling Andrew Cuomo an Italian. The linguistic oddity is this: nationality adjectives in -(i)an can readily be used as nouns (a German, a Canadian, an Indian, etc.); nationality adjectives in-(i)sh absolutely cannot (*a Spanish, *an Irish, *a French); and nationality adjectives in -ese are in between but mostly pretty marginal (?a Sudanese, ?a Japanese, and, of course, ?a Chinese). There are various morphological fixes for this problem (a Dane, a Welshman, a Spaniard, etc., but they remain fixes and subject to acquiring particular overtones (like becoming racist epithets). Add to that the morphological uniqueness of Chinaman (i.e. based on China rather than Chinese) and you have fertile ground for the semantic developments that this thread is mostly about.

  30. Robert Coren said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    "Chair" as metonymy(?) for the person occupying the chair has been around since before anybody started saying "chairperson". Somewhere in a crevice of my memory is a scene from the 1964 (or thereabouts) movie Point of Order, which is composed entirely of excerpts from the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, in which the Senator chairing the committee can be heard saying repeatedly, "The chair has the floor" (which is something of an amusing image if taken literally).

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    David Marjanović: On "chair" for "chairman" or "chairwoman", the OED says

    9. b. Often put for the occupant of the chair, the chairman, as invested with its dignity (as the throne is for the sovereign), e.g. in the cry Chair! Chair! when the authority of the chairman is appealed to, or not duly regarded; to address the chair, support the chair, etc. Now also used as an alternative for ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman’, esp. deliberately so as not to imply a particular sex.

    The first citation is from 1659.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 10:30 pm

    From Gloria Bien:

    Thanks for sending me the link–it's very interesting, and somehow I missed it even though I often read the Your friend gives some good links–although he quotes Bergen " Chinaman was as benign as Englishman or Frenchman" he gives a link to an article that says the parallel of "Chinaman" would not be "Englishman" or "Frenchmen," but "Englandman" and "Franceman." That was eye-opening for me. But his conclusion, "In Chinaperson, one can hear echoes of societal injustices of the past, as well as current attempts to make amends through linguistic hygiene" is really well-stated, IMHO.

    On "linguistic hygiene," I once read a satire on "-person" as suffix. Since "sons" are all male, we should change the suffix to "son-or-daughter." As in "S/he is the chairsonordaughter of the committee."

  33. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    April 28, 2018 @ 12:38 am

    In specifying ethnicity an adjective is better than a noun. Her daughter's fiancé is German/French/Jewish/Chinese/… sounds better than Her daughter's fiancé is a German/a Frenchman/a Jew/a Chinaperson/…

  34. The Suffocated said,

    April 28, 2018 @ 5:08 am

    @Daniele Brigadoi Cologna
    That 支那人 was a derogatory term during the Japanese occupation of China is really a myth. The word "China" itself means "支那" in the first place. The Hanzi/Kanji term had long been used in Japan since mid-Edo period in a neutral sense. More and more Chinese just perceived it as derogatory after Japan became increasingly aggressive against China.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    April 28, 2018 @ 6:03 am

    Thank you, The Suffocated.

    "The transcription of the name 'China' in Chinese characters" (6/17/12)

    Joshua A. Fogel, "New Thoughts on an Old Controversy: Shina as a Toponym for China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 229 (August, 2012)

  36. Rodger C said,

    April 28, 2018 @ 10:27 am

    Linguistic hygiene: Back in the 70s one used to see the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that "man" be replaced by "huperchild."

  37. Topher Cooper said,

    April 28, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

    "Hail To Thee, Fat Person" is Alan Sherman's climactic final number (since it is a faux dramatic speech over patriotic music, it isn't a song) on "My Son, The Nut." It is about his mother telling him to clean his plate, "because children are starving in Europe" and he points out that this was "years before the Marshal Plan."

  38. Ellen Kozisek said,

    April 28, 2018 @ 6:49 pm


    While, yes, those lines in the song quoted by Paul M are stereotypes, but there's a difference between a stereotype and slur.

  39. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 5:24 am

    Victor Mair wrote:
    On "linguistic hygiene," I once read a satire on "-person" as suffix. Since "sons" are all male, we should change the suffix to "son-or-daughter." As in "S/he is the chairsonordaughter of the committee."

    Some friends came up with the handier (if no less facetious) "chairperoffspring".

    (In case anyone wonders, the second part of "person" is etymologically nothing to do with "son".)

    When I was a kid in '80s Sweden, it was "the poor children in Africa" who'd been grateful for whatever unpalatable food was on offer. I never understood why adults kept repeating it as the standard reply was "why don't you send this to Africa then?"

  40. J.A. B. said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    Would "Chinese man" have been an acceptable alternative?

  41. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 7:42 pm

    Solely on the vexed question of Andrew Cuomo's identity, as referenced above by both myself and Bob Ladd, see

  42. Jenny Chu said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 11:16 pm

    Here in Hong Kong, there is quite the ongoing discussion about whether a Hong Konger (a Hong Kongese? A Hong Kongian? A Hong Kong person?) should be called "a Chinese person" or its equivalent in Cantonese.

  43. David Marjanović said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 4:29 am

    The first citation [of metonymic "chair"] is from 1659.

    Not bad… not bad at all! Thanks. :-)

  44. BZ said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    When we first came to the US from Russia we were mystified why everyone went out of the way to call as "Jewish" and not "Jews". Some who knew (a bit of) Russian even tried this in Russian (which is completely ungrammatical since nationality/religion/ethinicity/residence can only be a noun, not an adjective). On the other hand, I can't help but cringe when I hear "Zhid" in Polish despite it being a normal Polish word for Jew (but a slur in Russian or any other language that isn't Polish)

  45. ajay said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 8:29 am

    ". Is there some regional variation in the ethnicity of the stereotypical starving children?"

    I was delighted to learn from "Wild Swans" that the young Jung Chang was told by her mother in 1960s China "eat your rice! don't you know there are starving children in the capitalist world?"

  46. BZ said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

    I remember being told about starving children growing up in the USSR. I don't remember where they were (or indeed if a location was even mentioned), but "the capitalist world" was not it.

  47. Eidolon said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 6:37 pm

    "That 支那人 was a derogatory term during the Japanese occupation of China is really a myth. The word "China" itself means "支那" in the first place. The Hanzi/Kanji term had long been used in Japan since mid-Edo period in a neutral sense. More and more Chinese just perceived it as derogatory after Japan became increasingly aggressive against China."

    The origin of a name and whether it took on derogatory semantics later are separate arguments. 支那人, like China man, Oriental, and even a certain N word, were not originally derogatory. But they became so through historical associations with negative connotations. Considering the way the Japanese military treated the Chinese during World War II, and the way China and Chinese were portrayed in Imperial Japan, it shouldn't be surprising as to why people in China came to perceive 支那人 as a slur. It isn't just about aggression, either. Imperial Japanese propaganda was decidedly racist and portrayed the Chinese, Koreans, etc. as inferiors, and this perception naturally filtered down to the Japanese public and manifested in their language use.

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