"Gweilo" as a racially charged term

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Article by the Tibetan writer, Yonden Lhatoo, in the South China Morning Post (9/8/18):

"Is ‘gweilo’ really a racist word? Hong Kong just can’t decide:  Yonden Lhatoo shakes his head at the on-again, off-again debate over the use of the word that is obviously racist in its roots, but has become benign due to widespread acceptance among Caucasians themselves"

I will come right out and say it:  "gweilo" is overtly, inherently, intentionally racist.  It stigmatizes an entire race as inferior beings.  If any white person tells you that it is not racist, they are being self-effacing / deprecating or ironic (shuō fǎnhuà 說反話).  If a Chinese person says that it is a neutral or positive appellation for a Caucasian, they are either being disingenuous or evidently do not know the meanings of the constituent morphemes (see below).

The latest catalyst for this on-again, off-again debate is the case of a British man who has filed a discrimination lawsuit against a construction contractor he worked for, citing what he called a “general underlying hostility towards non-Chinese employees”, who were referred to as “gweilo in a derogatory sense”.

I sympathize with the British man for bringing suit against those who apply this epithet to him.

Let's break the word down syllable by syllable (morpheme by morpheme).

CantoDict gives the following meanings for 鬼 (Cant. gwai2; MSM gui3):

[1] [n] ghost; spirit; apparition
[2] [n] devil (a term of contempt or endearment)
[3] [adj] dishonest; improper; illicit
[4] [adj] terrible; horrible; damnable
[5] [n] sinister plot; dirty trick
[6] [Cant.] [adv] incredibly; extremely
[7] [Cant.] [adv] the hell (used as infix)

The second definition — "devil" — can be used as a term of contempt or of endearment, as in English "little devil" (小鬼 Cant. siu2gwai2; MSM xiao3gui3), i.e., "imp.

CantoDict lists 187 compounds and 15 example sentences that include the morpheme 鬼 (Cant. gwai2; MSM gui3) and, except when it is being used as an intensifier, nearly all of them are decidedly negative

See also:

"Eighty-one Cantonese proverbs in one picture" (2/27/14); a surprisingly large number of these proverbs include this morpheme (see here).

"Devilishly difficult 'dialect'" (8/20/15)

"Noodle devils" (3/31/13)

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers, part 2" (5/7/18)

(Cant. lou2; MSM lao3, liao2, lu4) is not so bad, but it is still not good either.  CantoDict gives the following usages:

[1] [n] guy; bloke; chap; fellow; man; person (informal); [2] [n] vulgar person; hillbilly

While 佬 (Cant. lou2; MSM lao3, liao2, lu4) is often used as a more or less neutral nominalizer or agentive suffix or simply to signify "man; guy", in the 99 compounds and 6 illustrative sentences given by CantoDict in which it appears, a goodly proportion are deprecatory in tone.

See also Wiktionary, which has this interesting etymological note:

Found in certain southern dialects (chiefly Cantonese) as the colloquial word for “man” (for example, in the term 肥佬). Probably related to Zhuang raeuz ~ laeuz (we; also a demonym: Rau peoples), a widespread Tai word meaning “we; people” (Proto-Tai *rawᴬ). [VHM:  bold emphasis added]

For a Wikipedia article on "gweilo" or "gwailo", see here, in Mandarin, in Cantonese.  For the Wiktionary article on "gweilo", see here:

Originally Cantonese. From the supposed resemblance of Portuguese and other European skin tones to ghosts.

(chiefly Cantonese, Min Dong, colloquial, derogatory, usually offensive) gweilo, "foreign devil" (particularly a European; a Caucasian; whitey)  [VHM:  cf. Nepali kuhirō कुहिरो ("foggy") — the first few times I heard little Nepalese street urchins taunt me thus, I thought they were calling me "queer", and it was only after I looked it up in a dictionary that I realized they were referring to my pale skin color.] 

A derogatory term for white people, particularly men, mainly in speech. Prior to the 1980s, the term was commonly prefixed in Cantonese by 死 (sei2, “damned”), with the meaning "damned ghost fucker, damned foreign devil".

In nuce, "gweilo" or "gwailo" is Cantonese for "foreign devil" (cf. yángguǐzi 洋鬼子). The "lo" portion is the same derogatory morpheme as the lǎo 佬 part of wàiguó lǎo 外国佬 ("gringos"), which I mentioned near the end of "Laowai: the old furriner" (4/9/14)

When I travelled to Guangzhou in the early 80s, the local people quite openly referred to Americans as "gweilo / gwailo" 鬼佬. I tried to explain to them that it wasn't very nice to call us that, but they just looked at me dumbly. I don't know what the situation is like there nowadays, since I haven't been back for awhile.

(Source of the above paragraph.)

When I first came to Penn in 1979, I tried to establish friendly relations between the University and Chinatown. I called various cultural organizations and expressed my willingness to set up programs and plan activities. I remember very clearly one person who picked up the telephone saying to another person in the room where he was, "There's a gwailo on the line". I knew that I'd be facing an uphill battle in my attempts to carry out meaningful exchanges.

Around the same time, I asked my work study student, a Cantonese speaker from Chinatown, if she knew how to write gwailo. Of course, she didn't, even though she was learning how to read and write Mandarin. For her, Cantonese existed purely in the spoken realm, as it does for most speakers of the language (this is a topic we've discussed many times on Language Log). Then I asked her if she knew what "gwailo" meant, and she said that it meant "foreigner". After that, I asked her if she knew what "gwai" and "lo" meant as separate syllables. She professed to have no knowledge of that. When I told her that the first meant "ghost; devil" and the second meant "guy; bloke; chap; fellow; vulgar person; hillbilly", she seemed quite embarrassed.

(Source of the above three paragraphs.)

When I taught at the University of Hong Kong during 2002-3, I took Cantonese the whole year long. It was all in romanization, of course. Even though some of us could read and write Mandarin, I can't recall that our teacher ever once put a character on the board nor did he provide any materials with characters. Incidentally, he was one of the most experienced and highly respected teachers of Cantonese in Hong Kong.

We were already fairly well along in the course when he introduced the names used to designate people from different countries, and the whole class was flabbergasted when nearly all of the terms he taught us were derogatory: Malays, Filipinos, blacks ("black devils"), Indians, …and on down the line. I think he taught us about two dozen different names for people from different countries, and they were nearly all patently pejorative.

The longer the teacher went on, the more aghast we grew. Normally I didn't say very much in that class, except to repeat sample sentences, etc., but after awhile I couldn't take it any longer, and I asked the teacher whether he realized that all of these names were unflattering. I asked whether they had any other names for these groups, and he said, "No, that's just what we call them." I followed up by inquiring whether social commentators had addressed this problem of terminology for other peoples, and he just brushed my question aside by saying something like "Nobody makes a big deal over it."

I think that about a third of the people in the class were so upset by his handling of the situation that they dropped it after that lesson. I should note that it was a very cosmopolitan class, with students (most of whom were professors and lecturers like myself) from around the globe — Iran, Korea, South America, Africa, Australia, England….

I have a great deal of affection for Cantonese, as readers of Language Log are well aware, but this kind of negative terminology for people from elsewhere still deeply puzzles and troubles me. I really don't know how to comprehend this phenomenon.

(Source of the above five paragraphs.)


On various types of "foreign devils", see this comment and the following posts:

"Fake foreigner" (19/3/11)

"The rhetoric of anti-Japanese invective" (9/23/12)

"Does Gary Locke speak Chinese?" (8/19/11)

[h.t. Mark Metcalf and John Rohsenow]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 7:15 am

    Where did the vocabulary spring from and what is its history? How did the attitudes develop?

    From what I can tell, similar attitudes seem to have been prevalent throughout China during the colonial period. What made this vocabulary become so entrenched in Cantonese? Was it the greater contact with non-Chinese during that period?

  2. Tom S. Fox said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 7:32 am

    A word is only offensive if you are offended by it.

  3. Kevin Yeung said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 7:54 am

    Growing up in HK speaking Cantonese I can say confidently no one pictures a devil when saying gweilo. That you need the qualifier 死 to say damned gweilo explains a few things.

    How many Brits picture a Bulgarian when saying ‘bugger’?

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 9:09 am

    Another SCMP piece on "gweilo" (by Tammy Tam) here.

  5. Ursa Major said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 9:10 am

    The Wiktionary quote "from the supposed resemblance of Portuguese and other European skin tones to ghosts" matches what I've heard about the etymology of the term in the past. Is this accepted by experts? I can't imagine that Portugese people who have spent months on a sailing ship in the tropics would have a noticeably paler complexion than Cantonese.

  6. JB said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 9:42 am

    @Kevin Yeung: You miss the point. The difference being that Bulgarians are not referred to as "buggers".

  7. John Rohsenow said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 10:24 am

    This is a tricky (and sensitive) question, but a complex one. Part of the problem is that for most of the last century or so, many of (us) "foreign devils" did not take offense at such terms (yangguizi, kuilo, chu yang xiang, etc.) b/c of our innate sense of racial superiority, so that it was/is easy to "laugh/brush it off" and/or dismiss it as "sour grapes" on the part of a people to whom (I'm sorry to say) we Caucasian Europeans felt superior, largely b/c of our material and military superiority. What is interesting is that most recently, as Mao said in 1949, "the Chinese people have stood up" again, but this time they are starting to
    challenge the West as financial and military equals on the world stage.
    As I understand it, -lao as a suffix in Mandarin is in some senses a term of familiarity, e.g. Mei-lao so I was curious about the -lo in Cantonese kui-lo.
    A related question is the "non-reversability" of the term "waiguo ren" (foreigner) as generally used by Chinese speakers. Even Chinese who have lived abroad for decades will say about a fellow Chinese immigrant or one of their children, "ta jia gei waiguo ren" (she married a 'foreigner'), even though their American neighbors may still think of THEM as the 'foreigners' . Only occasionally will a Chinese say of
    themselves, "zai Meiguo, WO jiu suan shi waiguo ren" (In the USA, I am a foreigner)
    — I have amused/confused many Chinese friends by jokingly describing my experiences living in China as "shou hua zui" (to suffer Chinese torture), a play on the common expression "shou yang zui" (to suffer foreign tortures), used to describe the inconveniences (and indignities?) of Chinese living outside China. And I note that they never seem to have any trouble understanding what I mean, even though they have never heard the expression before –b/c I made it up myself; they just laugh nervously. –JSR

  8. Ursa Major said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 11:00 am

    I started wondering if there are any other words "that [are] obviously racist in [their] roots, but [have] become benign" as ethnic labels. Bulgarian to bugger and Slav to slave are words that have travelled in the opposite direction from a term for an ethnic group to a word with negative connotations.

    Among English words Berber is the only one I can definitely come up with, ultimately from the same Greek word as barbarian. Wiktionary tells me that only a minority of experts now think Eskimo comes from Cree meaning "eaters of raw meat". Pakeha and palagi are routinely used by the people they apply to but have had derogatory etymologies proposed, although all the sources I looked at ultimately stop at "unknown".

  9. Bloix said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

    Ursa Major-
    Mzungu, a word for white person in much of East Africa, comes from a root meaning to turn around, to spin. it's more or less benign. The original meaning is sometimes translated as "wanderer"- which presumably originates from the fact that the whites who first appeared there were explorers, and would not be offensive – and sometimes as "aimless person," which is somewhat derogatory.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

    @Tom S. Fox:

    "A word is only offensive if you are offended by it."

    I guess that potentially neutralizes all offensive terminology.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 2:19 pm

    I'll repeat my comment that was silently removed:

    Why would the meanings of the constituent morphemes be relevant? Would an American referring to "niggers" be judged not racist as long as they were aware of the meaning of the constituent morpheme?

  12. Aaron Toivo said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

    @Victor Mair: Isn't it generally always up to the target to decided whether something is offensive?

  13. F said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

    If it is "up to the target" to decide whether something is offensive, then that must depend on the target's knowledge of the language concerned. So I can refer to someone as a "n*gg*r" if and only if I know they won't understand me. Something wrong there, I think.

  14. peterv said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 3:48 pm

    “Originally Cantonese. From the supposed resemblance of Portuguese and other European skin tones to ghosts.”

    Something is amiss here. Ghosts were generally seen as white or transparent in pre-modern European cultures. In traditional African cultures, in contrast, they are seen as black. It would be surprising if traditional Chinese cultures had seen them as white.

  15. John Rohsenow said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 3:59 pm

    Why "surprising if traditional Chinese cultures had seen them as white"?
    Not sure about depiction of ghosts, but Chinese wear white at funerals, and generally tend to avoid that color as inauspicious at other times.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 5:13 pm

    Michael Watts:


    Would an American referring to "niggers" be judged not racist as long as they were aware of the meaning of the constituent morpheme?


    Aaron Toivo:


    Isn't it generally always up to the target to decide whether something is offensive?


    These views need to be reconciled.

    I agree with F when he writes:


    If it is "up to the target" to decide whether something is offensive, then that must depend on the target's knowledge of the language concerned. So I can refer to someone as a "n*gg*r" if and only if I know they won't understand me. Something wrong there, I think.


  17. krogerfoot said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 6:14 pm

    I've become conditioned to the American journalism practice of using "racially charged" to signal a lofty reluctance to ascribe something to racism. In recent years especially, it's maddening how often even the most baldfacedly racist obnoxiousness is blandly described as "racially charged" in the news. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the forthright and unambiguous stance taken by Prof. Mair's post.

  18. AntC said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 6:51 pm

    I lived and worked in HK (and travelled to Singapore) in the early '90's.

    All of the expats knew the word "gweilo", and used it jokingly amongst themselves. (There were even cartoons in the Straits Times using it.)

    I noticed HK'ers I met socially were a little abashed to hear it, and generally didn't use the word in front of whites.

    I suppose two wrongs don't make a right, but considering the impact of European so-called civilisation on China/Asia-Pacific, and the racially-based offensive epithets most Europeans used for several centuries, I don't think we've a leg to stand on if we choose to take offense.

    We can own the word ourselves and turn its meaning, as many minority groups are proudly showing.

  19. Cyndy said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 10:26 pm

    When the heart stops beating, the body turns pallid. I suspect first glimpses of Europeans looked to Chinese like visions of people no longer alive, ergo "ghost people." When I first started interacting with blue-eyed people at age 14, I couldn't look them in the eyes…I felt like I was looking at two holes in the head straight through to the sky!

  20. rosie said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 12:36 am

    Tom Fox: "A word is only offensive if you are offended by it."

    F's reply refutes that. Not only that, but, if someone directs an offensive remark at you and you understand it, and you are thereby offended by it, the problem is not your being offended, and you are not to blame. The problem is the offender's holding and showing an offensive attitude, and implying, to any hearers who might share that attitude, that showing it is OK. And the offender is to blame for all that.

  21. tangent said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 12:37 am

    I'm surprised by Victor Mair's methodology, reasoning from component morphemes to the word. It's evidence, but it's surely secondary to the primary fact of what the word means to speakers and to listeners. Not saying the meaning and the morphological structure are misaligned in fact here, but they could have been. There's plenty of non-compositionality around, and "actually the morphemes mean 'cow cunt'" doesn't mean it can't be used as praise I hear.

  22. John Rohsenow said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 1:05 am

    "We can own the word ourselves and turn its meaning, as many minority groups are proudly showing."

    e.g, :queer".

  23. Chas Belov said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 2:22 am

    I was once informed that the Singlish/Hokkien term "ang mo" (red hair) to refer to Caucasians was actually short for a reference to the red haired monkey in Journey to the West, a troublesome character, and was thus pejorative. I don't know whether this is accurate.

  24. maidhc said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 3:00 am

    Regardless of the origin of the term "Eskimo", the Inuit (in Canada, at least) have been fairly successful at convincing people that they would prefer to be called Inuit.

    My father was approached by a student after a lecture in which he had used the phrase "getting gypped". The student politely pointed out that that was a derogatory term referring to the Roma people (of which he was one). Of course my father hadn't meant anything derogatory by it, but he had to admit that the student was right. He promised to stop using that phrase in future.

    People often use such terms without thinking, but when it get explained to them, they may well change, as my father did.

    Staff — including white workers — quit St. Louis shop en masse over owner’s unapologetic N-word use

  25. Eric said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 3:19 am

    Cyndy, my childhood experience was similar — I was baffled by how they could see out of those tiny little holes!

  26. Ricardo said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 5:44 am

    I think the issues surrounding the word '鬼佬' are similar to those surrounding ‘老外’. To my mind, the proof that these words are offensive is that the Chinese rarely use these words in front of foreigners who speak good Chinese, preferring fomulations such as '外国朋友'.

    There are exceptions, of course. A few that I can think of: If they mean their words affectionately, kiddingly, ironically etc; if they genuinely wish to offend, express disrespect, disdain etc; genuine ignorance… but these are exceptions, which implies that there is a rule.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 6:49 am


    "Not saying the meaning and the morphological structure are misaligned in fact here, but they could have been."

    Weak reasoning.

  28. AKA said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    I first heard the term "gwailo" from the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Sometimes non-player characters on the street say things to the main character (white American man) like "what are you looking at, gwailo?" and it's obviously meant to be pejorative (it contrasts with other characters harassing him for having artificial limbs). They will also call him "lao wai" which I always assumed meant — and had the same connotation — as gwailo. So it seems to me the developers intended for a non-speaker of any Chinese language to interpret the terms as insulting.

  29. Yet Another John said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 9:23 am

    I don't think it's quite right to say that the question of whether a term is offensive or not is something which can be privately negotiated between the utterer and the recipient (as some other commenters have suggested). Clearly this has to do with community standards and shared senses of meaning within a language community, and unless you happen to be a particularly powerful or influential individual, then your personal reaction to a slur probably won't affect whether or not it is generally considered to be offensive.

    Just like if a branch from an overhanging tree in my yard falls and hits my neighbor in the head, it would not be up to me and her to decide whether or not this constitutes criminal negligence. This is a (probably complex) legal issue which would depend a lot upon the standards which have evolved in the community where we live. Of course, independently of the legal facts, we (as two individuals) could choose to apply the law strictly or not, to escalate the situation or to laugh in off and shake hands.

    Implying that extreme offensiveness can be logically derived just from some component part which can mean "devil" in isolation is an oddly rigid position to take. If we ever meet IRL, I will have to be very careful not to refer to you as a "poor devil."

  30. tsts said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 9:49 am

    While I often heard the term gwai2 lou2 used by Cantonese speakers in HK (about 10 years ago), here in New York I mostly get referred to as a 老番 (lou5 faan1). I was under the impression that that was less offensive, but now I am not sure after. Any thoughts?

    Wondering why I now hear a different term. Most of the people I interact with are Taishanese but fluent in Cantonese, so maybe that is a local thing?

  31. Michael Watts said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

    老外 is pretty obviously not offensive at all; there is a street in Shanghai known as 老外街 full of fancy restaurants and other shopping that caters to local foreigners. There's a big decorative sign over it labeling it 老外街.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

    For lǎowài 老外 (lit., "old foreign"), see the variety of opinions and translations here:

    "Laowai: the old furriner" (4/9/14)

    For images of "laowai / 老外", see here and here. There's quite a difference.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 4:58 pm

    From Robert Badgley:

    As a non-academic, I would like to say that the use of derogatory terms for outsiders seems pretty universal to me to the point where I have a hard time finding any outrage over it. I mean, some are worse than others, the "n word" for example (which I am loathe to even spell out) but I don't feel particularly offended when I'm called a "geweilo". Here in the Bay Area where we have a goodly number of Chinese I've more frequently been called "lo fan" or "bhak gwoi" which, I am told, are derogatory and I'm not bothered by it mainly because (1) I know the person calling me that and (2) like I said, it's a pretty universal practice.

    There is a practice at least here in the Bay Area where Chinese people refer to each other as either FOB (fresh off the boat, in other words immigrants) or ABC (American born Chinese). And FOB is definitely a derogatory term. A lovely Chinese woman I know quite well and who is both an immigrant and a wonderful person once told me she could never marry an FOB because "everybody knows FOBs treat their wives like shit."

    I was particularly amused by your student who feigned ignorance when you questioned her about some of these terms. Very very Chinese.

  34. Eidolon said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 8:06 pm

    The offensiveness of a term is neutralized when the source means no offense by it and the target receives no offense from it. The N word is not offensive when used as a term of endearment between African Americans. It is offensive in almost every other situation.

    The etymology of gweilo is clearly that of a slur. But if neither source nor target interpret it as offensive, then it can be neutralized. However, I would never assume that of strangers; in this respect it is identical to the N word.

  35. Ksana said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 9:40 pm


    I asked my daughter(11 years and grown up in Beijing) if she knew the expression "shou yang zui" , she was completely at a loss, as I had expected. She knows the phrase "shou zui", but "yang zui" certainly baffles her. Similarly, she has never heard of words such as "yang huo"(matches), "yang hui"(cement), etc. "Huo chai"(matches) and "shui ni"(cement) are more commonly used nowadays. Many words with "yang" are no longer included in the vocabulary of the younger generation and might be wiped out in the memory of the next few generations.

  36. dainichi said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 10:11 pm

    > the proof that these words are offensive is that the Chinese rarely use these words in front of foreigners who speak good Chinese,

    Exactly. It's sad that people who mean no offense and use the term habitually, might actually be the ones who are perceived as offensive, not the ones who use it pejoratively behind the referents' backs.

    I speak Japanese natively but don't look Japanese. I had no idea "外人" (gaijin) was considered pejorative by some (外国人 gaikokujin is preferred) until someone explained it to me. Until then I'm sure I'd both used and been called both.

  37. Ricardo said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 10:56 pm

    As has already been pointed out above, the offensiveness of these terms can be debated endlessly.

    Perhaps a more interesting question is 'why'. Why, taken as a whole, do people in China seem less sensitive to the problem of racism in their country? Everytime the matter is raised in some form or other, the response from officialdom and several other quarters is one of blanket denial that there is any kind of problem at all. (This is not to say that other countries don't have similar issues, so no 'whataboutisms', thanks.)

    I believe the common explanation is that the country is nearly monoracial (in the popular perception, that is). But one regularly encounters a kind of insensitivity and chauvanism from locals who should be educated enough to know better.

  38. Bloix said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 1:05 am

    "Why, taken as a whole, do people in China seem less sensitive to the problem of racism in their country?"
    Because they haven't been forced to change. You don't have to be overly sensitive if you can put racial minorities who assert their right to be different in re-education camps.
    I would think that Han people in China are about where white people in America were in 1955. And where a lot of them would like to be now, and will be if they have their way.

  39. boynamedsue said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 2:15 am

    Surely the etymology of a word can not not relevant to its offensiveness when the speech community is not aware of this in general? If the community do not feel that they are insulting with this term, perhaps they are not?

    I must say, however, that I have had an experience of a similar situation in Spain where the term "guiri" is used dismissively to describe tourists and people of north European appearance. If you ever get into a discussion about it, people will exclude you from 'guiritud' because you are not a tourist, but in practice it has been used to describe me by a Spanish person who was themselves a tourist in England.

    It is sometimes difficult in cultures which have a short history of multicultural coexistence to create the conditions of mutual respect.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 8:04 am

    "…the etymology of a word can not not relevant to its offensiveness…".

    There are all sorts of bad words flung around whose speakers may try to excuse themselves by saying, "I didn't mean anything offensive by it." But we all have to become more sensitive to the impact of our words on others, even when we really don't mean anything offensive by them — e.g., "niggardly". All the more when we are using words that are overtly pejorative and deprecatory.

  41. Vanya said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

    Is “guiri” related to Mexican “güero”?

  42. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

    The wikipedia piece on "ang mo" indicates that longer phrases adding an additional morpheme to mean "red-haired monkey(s)" or "red-haired devil(s)" have also had some historical currency down around the Singapore/Malaysia region. One could I guess either treat that as evidence that "ang mo" on its own was not viewed as sufficiently derogatory, or as evidence (which might or might not be empirically true as a matter of the timeline) that "ang mo" is a clipped version of those more clearly derogatory phrases and evokes some of their baggage. And I'm not sure why it should matter – a description that picks out a distinctive physical feature of a particular foreign group can easily become derogatory in use ("slant-eyed" for persons of East Asian ancestry would be a good example in English) in use even if the component pieces of the description don't seem inherently derogatory. That doesn't mean it's necessarily derogatory, only that etymology does not drive meaning when there are so many other contextual factors floating around. (For example, "blue-eyed devils" has had some usage as an anti-white pejorative in some places but as far as I know has not generally been clipped down to the point where "blue-eyes" on its own has any real pejorative force.)

    Wikipedia notes that Edo-era Japanese used the "cognate" (not necessarily literally, but the word written with the same characters) of ang mo to refer to the Dutch kind of white people as specifically distinguished from the Portuguese-and-Spanish kind of white people, who are of course much less likely to be red-haired. To the extent usage in Singapore/Malaysia (where at one point some centuries ago the contrast between Dutch and Portuguese was likewise of considerable political importance and salience) has expanded to mean "all white people, whether or not of one of the ethnic backgrounds that is consistent with being red-haired," that's another practical example of semantic drift from an original etymology.

  43. Xtifr said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

    Eidolon said,

    The offensiveness of a term is neutralized when the source means no offense by it and the target receives no offense from it. The N word is not offensive when used as a term of endearment between African Americans. It is offensive in almost every other situation.

    And then there are confusing cases: I was recently in Oakland's Chinatown, and overheard one person of East Asian descent refer to another of the same heritage with the N word. In what appeared to be a friendly manner. As a white person of western European descent, I decided I wasn't qualified to know how to react to that. :)

  44. Ellen Kozisek said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

    Etymology doesn't define if something is offensive, but it can give a clue as to the larger social context of the word or phrase, which does define if something is offensive.

  45. John Rohsenow said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    ""Why, taken as a whole, do people in China seem less sensitive to the problem of racism in their country?…
    Yes. The majority of the discussion heretofore has been concerned with terms like gailo, yangguizi, which refer to "foreigners", i.e., non-"Chinese".
    The question of the terms that Han Chinese use to refer to their own
    (54?) minorities is of course a whole nother area, not to mention the
    terms which those minorities use to describe the Han in THEIR own languages. Over the years, the few working class Oyighurs I have met mostly could not refer to Han w/o looking like they wanted to spit, but now the reasons for that have become more apparent to the world at large. One can only imagine what the Tibetans think/say. –But discussing THESE topics ("interfering in China's internal affairs") would
    open up a much hotter can of worms, perhaps best not gotten into?

  46. Suburbanbanshee said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    Re: the Inuit, it's also true that the Yup'ik and other related tribes often prefer being called Eskimo. Possibly this is because it annoys the Inuit; but I've also heard that they like to avoid pronunciation issues that way.

  47. John Rohsenow said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

    Guilo vs. Lofan:
    Response from a non-linguist friend, born and raised in HK, long resident in the US, involved in the Chinatown community:
    "Comments from your academic friends and ex. are quite interesting, John. I think it's not taken as negatively as before. I think many people who use these terms don't really know the origins of these meanings
    – to them, it's just a white person-Caucasian. Many of my LoFan friends/relatives call themselves that fondly-maybe showing off their Chinese, hahaha….

  48. Chips Mackinolty said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 6:59 pm

    The issue of what ethnic groups call other ethnic groups call each other, not least in the context of colonialism, is an ongoing one … and one that can change over time. For example, in the northern Australian Aboriginal language of Jawoyn, the word for a European person, is Mam, which translates as "ghost". I have never heard it as an insult–but on many occasions as a warning, eg "Mam coming!".

    On the other hand, when in 1989 the Jawoyn Traditional Owners regained title to the Nitmiluk National Park, they adopted the slogan "Mam-gun, Mungguy-wun lerr nyarrang Nitmiluk", which translates as "European people, Aboriginal people, together sharing the country of Nitmiluk". Propaganda, perhaps, but at least an attempt to reach some sort of reconciliation with the ghosts who invaded Jawoyn lands a century and a half ago.

    This is not to say for a moment there are no disparaging and racist words used to describe Aboriginal people by the colonisers–and this continues to this day. But that's for another discussion.

  49. Chas Belov said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 2:06 am

    @tsts: I had always heard 老番 (lou5 faan1) glossed as "barbarian" with 番茄 (tomato) literally translated as "barbarian eggplant" (c.f. 西瓜 watermelon, lit. "west melon")

    @J.W. Brewer: Thank you for the info on ang moh.

    @Xtifr: I'm White. A Black person once said to me when my street-crossing held up their driving, "Can you walk any slower, n-a?" (elision added) This was perhaps 10-15 years ago. So it's definitely gained supplementary meanings. Happened in San Francisco on Potrero Hill.

  50. Chas Belov said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 2:07 am

    Hard to remember for sure, but actually I seem to recall they said the unattenuated n-word, not the n-a variation.

  51. RP said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 6:57 am

    As a speaker with a nonrhotic accent I find it weird that n–a would be considered "attenuated" compared with the "unattenuated" n-word. I presume for us nonrhotic speakers the two variations can't be distinguished. Isn't AAE also often nonrhotic? As well as some traditional varieties of southern US English who probably never intended to attenuate anything.

  52. Ellen K. said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 8:41 am

    I think that although AAVE is non-rhotic, the speakers of AAVE are multi-dialectal and are rhotic when speaking General American.

  53. Bathrobe said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 8:53 am

    Would saying the word non-rhotically attenuate the force of saying it rhotically? Some kind of instinct tells me that it would. Saying it with an 'r' would (purely according to my surmise) make it sound seriously intended. But perhaps someone in the US could enlighten me.

  54. Jonathan M Smith said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 11:29 am

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but my (white) experience is that black speakers who use n-word almost never use it to mean 'black person/people' per se, that is, to identify an individual in a group, or to refer to "black people" in general in contradistinction to others. Both strike me as racist-white-person language. So applications like xtifr notes (I have heard 'the white n–') are just extensions of the word's actual meaning in/to that community.

    Gweilo, laowai, etc., are obviously racist terms, the question being how much it matters and to whom. The proof is Ricardo's: relatively cosmopolitan/cultured native speakers of Chinese (in the P.R.C. at least) have come to find such words coarse and potentially offensive, and scrupulously avoid them.* This results in a situation in which habitual users of laowai, etc., are marked as irredeemably tu3 土 — as it should be.

    * Except in special circumstances in which the "unculturedness" is intended, whether as ironic, humorous, or some similar.

  55. Ellen K. said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    @Bathrobe. Having a non-rhotic accent and saying "nigger" is not the same as using the AAVE term nigga.

  56. John Rohsenow said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    rhotic |ˈrōtik| (adjective, Phonetics)
    of, relating to, or denoting a dialect or variety of English, e.g., Midwestern American English, in which r is pronounced before a consonant (as in hard) and at the ends of words (as in far).

  57. John Rohsenow said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

    PS: So the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace's "niggrah' would be non-rhotic?

  58. Bathrobe said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 7:31 pm

    My question was, could one or the other be considered more "attenuated"?

  59. DaveK said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 8:30 pm

    @John Rohsenow: Wallace and the other racists who used the term always maintained it was a regional pronunciation of “Negro”

  60. Ricardo said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 8:45 pm

    @Jonathan M Smith

    Among themselves, the Chinese probably use words like 'laowai' and 'gweilou' as casually as Brazilians (of whom I am one) use the word 'gringo'.

    But when it comes to the insensitive use of these words, I think the urban/rural split (to be '土' or not to be '土') is likely the opposite of the one you describe. Rural Chinese have much less contact with foreigners and are thus generally more polite, more careful not to give offence, when dealing with them directly.

    One hears the offensive 'laowai/gweilou etc' much more frequently in an urban setting, among Chinese who live and work among foreigners and do not entirely like/respect them. There is probably a class component to it as well, in that certain Chinese elites avoid the word 'laowai/gweilou etc' as much as certain black American elites avoid the word 'nigger'. Using such words are seen by them as low class, but not really '土'.

    A Chinese friend once told me that when she was studying abroad as an undergraduate in Sydney, she and her friends regularly used the word 'gweilou' to refer to white Australians, and I would describe her set as probably the least '土' people I can imagine.

  61. Brett Dunbar said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 9:54 pm

    – Ursa Major

    Welsh seems to have originally been a derogatory term. Still as it ended up as the only surviving term in English we ended up adopting it ourselves. Briton, originally synonymous has acquired a broader meaning.

  62. Brian said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 11:37 pm

    A college-aged friend of mine in (and natively from) Beijing used the word 老外 (laowai) in front of me (a white person). His mother told him to say 外国人 (waiguoren) instead.

    "A word is offensive if your mother would tell you not to use it" seems like a good rule of thumb.

  63. David Marjanović said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

    A word is only offensive if you are offended by it.

    I think you're blaming the victims here.

    I was particularly amused by your student who feigned ignorance when you questioned her about some of these terms. Very very Chinese.

    I see no reason to think she was lying at all. Most people never ask why a language has homonyms, or necessarily even notice their existence if they don't happen to occur in a pun.

    Welsh seems to have originally been a derogatory term.

    Interesting. Can you point me to a source for this?

    Ultimately – not in English, but in Pre-Proto-Germanic – it's simply the self-designation of the people known to the Romans as Volcae.

  64. Brett Dunbar said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 3:51 am


    More clearly than in other languages, walha took on the meaning not just of foreigner but of 'the other' in Old English; it became a term for an inferior race, worthy of enslavement. Without mercy or shame, the Anglo-Saxon invaders gradually forced the Welsh from the rich, arable plains of the East to the rough, barren mountains in the West. And these are still the regions where the English Celtic-speaking minorities live to this day, Wales '(the land of the) foreigners' and Cornwall, with Corn- referring to the original tribal name of the inhabitants and -wall from Old English 'foreigner.' Welsh comes from the corresponding adjective, welisc, wælisc 'foreign.'

    Basically it became pretty derogatory in old English, more so than in other Germanic languages.

  65. David Marjanović said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 11:25 am

    That passage, which doesn't cite its own sources, contradicts the claim that "Welsh seems to have originally been a derogatory term"; instead, "it became a term for an inferior race, worthy of enslavement", emphasis added to both. Seeing as the neutral meaning is back, it probably persisted alongside the derogatory one the whole time.

  66. John Rohsenow said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 6:39 pm

    from Wikipedia:
    "The names "Wales" and "Welsh" are traced to the Proto-Germanic word "Walhaz" meaning "foreigner", "stranger", "Roman", "Romance-speaker", or "Celtic-speaker" which was used by the ancient Germanic peoples to describe inhabitants of the former Roman Empire, who were largely romanised and spoke Latin or Celtic languages.[Davies, J. A history of Wales p. 69; published 1990 by Penguin, ISBN 0-14-014581-8] The same etymological origin is shared by the names of various other Celtic or Latin peoples such as the Walloons and the Vlachs, as well as of the Swiss canton of Valais…"

  67. Rodger C said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 11:43 am

    My half cent: When I first read the title of this post, I thought it was going to be about Welsh insults for the English.

  68. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 12:01 pm

    I'm with Tom Fox here ("A word is only offensive if you are offended by it") — I have no problem referring to myself as a gwei-lo (in a Sinitic context, of course), and I am not in the least offended if someone refers to me as such.

  69. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

    What if someone called you an "ass"?

    A "baboon"?

    A "cretin"?

    An "idiot"?

    A "charlie"?

    A "jerk"?

    A "geek"?

    A "twit"?

    A "bloody fool"?

    A "nincompoop"?

    A "ninny"?

    A "poop"?

    A "devil"?

    A "demon"?

    A "ghost"?

    A "honkie"?





    I could easily list a hundred more such terms that are considered by most people to be offensive.

    Maybe I should put it this way: what terms would offend you?

  70. John Rohsenow said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

    At the risk of getting overly political/real, one's reaction to being referred to by a a term is usually a function of one's being a member of a certain class or social group who are "looked down on" by a socially "superior"/ more powerful group, (btw: not something which many of European-American PhDs have experience with). I think that's why most White Americans aren't insulted at being referred to as "Whiteys, honkies, grays, etc., although when it's spit at you face to face, sometimes the emotional force does come through, and one "gets the message", even if one isn't "insulted." What's interesting about the Chinese case is that basically the Chinese have had a innate sense of racial superiority for centuries, which has survived despite a couple hundred years of being exploited by materially/politically/ militarily superior Western powers.
    Now that they are coming back into their own (often now "beating us at our own game") it will be interesting to see how the power dynamics play out, and –I suspect — THAT is what has precipitated the present

  71. Bryan Hann said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

    As a Gweilo Newf who lived in Hong Kong for two decades and hopes one day to own a Gran Torino, I don't give a damn what I am called. Just stay off my lawn! :)

  72. Bryan Hann said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

    "I don't think it's quite right to say that the question of whether a term is offensive or not is something which can be privately negotiated between the utterer and the recipient"

    Putting on my Wittgensteinian hat and being someone who does not know your language game of 'offensive' — I understand the phrase 'X is offensive to Y'. I do not understand the phrase 'X is offensive.'

  73. Bryan Hann said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 3:28 pm

    Ellen K. said,
    September 13, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    "@Bathrobe. Having a non-rhotic accent and saying "nigger" is not the same as using the AAVE term nigga."

    But is the one with such an accent saying "nigger" distinguishable from one with such an accent saying the AAVE "nigga"?

  74. Bryan Hann said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

    "What if someone called you an "ass"?

    A "baboon"?

    A "cretin"?

    An "idiot"?"

    That was not addressed to me, but to the majority of them ("cretin", "idiot", …) I would probably reply "I don't dispute it–but what's your point?"

    And for some I might ask "I don't understand your term [TERM]. Can you rephrase?"


  75. John Rohsenow said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

    What's a Newf? Newfie? (Newfoundlander)? and WHERE can one park a
    Grand Torino in HK???? ;-)

  76. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

    VHM asked (arguably rhetorically) "What if someone called you an "ass", a "baboon", …, a "dweeb" ? My reaction in all cases would depend on my understanding of the speaker's intent. If I thought that offence was intended, I would take offence; if I thought the comment was intended humourously, I would take it as such. Within the last couple of days I have called my wife "an eejit" — no offence was intended, none was taken. Everything depends on context — there are (IMHO) relatively few indisputably offensive terms as such, and rather many terms that can be interpreted as being intended as offensive in a certain context. "Stupid c***" is almost certainly intended as offensive; "gwei-lo" (again, IMHO) almost certainly not. But I don't think that anyone can legitimately be called "gobshite" (one of VHM's examples) — although not a normal part of my idiolect, "gobshite" would to me appear to refer to something that one has (allegedly) said, not to oneself.

  77. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

    Of course, I meant that the people who said these words did so maliciously and offensively.

  78. Ellen Kozisek said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 10:17 pm

    @Bryan Hann

    Yes, because they aren't speakers of AAVE, aren't speaking AAVE. Or so it seems to me.

  79. Ellen Kozisek said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 10:25 pm

    I think Eidolon put it well.

    The offensiveness of a term is neutralized when the source means no offense by it and the target receives no offense from it.

    Which is notably different than Tom S. Fox's statement that "A word is only offensive if you are offended by it.".

    A word being used in a non-offensive way in a particular conversation does not make it not offensive. it's neutralized in that particular context.

  80. Philip Taylor said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 8:03 am

    Ellen — are there any offensive words as such ? Or are there only words that can be used offensively ? When my late grandfather, some 65 years ago, spoke of "that lovely little nigger nurse who looks after me", he meant no offence, and no offence was taken — "nigger" was, at that time, still an acceptable part of British English. And when Mellors said (to Lady Chatterley) "C***, c*** — that's the beauty of you: c***", once again no offence was intended and none was taken. Consider "feminist" — if you said "I am a feminist, and proud of it", you would be using the word in an inoffensive sense; but if I wrote "What you write is feminist claptrap", offence would be intended and could legitimately be taken. Would you not agree ?

  81. Ellen K. said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 8:55 am

    @Phillip Taylor

    Words DO have meaning outside specific speech acts. The general meaning of the speakers of the language, or some smaller subset of speakers. Thus the reasons dictionaries work for giving word meanings. So, yes, a word can be generally an offensive word (or an offensive word in a particular meaning) while being used non-offensively in a particular incident of speech.

    Words aren't Platonic ideals that exist apart from use of the words, but they DO exist apart from the individual speech act in which they occur.

  82. Johannes Pong said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 11:22 am

    It really just depends on the context, and the speaker's intent.
    Sometimes it's playful, sometimes it's malicious, sometimes it denotes familiarity, most of the time it's just too damn annoying to have to think & say [mei gwok yan], [ga na dai yan], [ying gwok yan], [ou zau yan], [faat gwok yan] or [ngoi gwok yan] or [sai yan].
    [gwai lou] is just the generic blanket term for "foreigner."
    I suppose even the neutral term "foreigner" in English has somewhat xenophobic tones anyway.

    Like the n- word, some of my black friends let me say it to them, but I would not casually throw it around at a bar with people I don't know as street cred.

    And on that note, I just found out from my Parisian friends that "ghostwriter" in French is "nègre." Apparently back in the day, the French had their slaves of African descent do stuff & then they claimed that they did it… & the term sort of stuck. O___o

  83. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 5:56 pm

    "It really just depends on the context, and the speaker's intent."

    No, many people would never want to hear that word directed at them.

    I think that several of the commenters to this thread should go back and read the latter part of the o.p. in which I describe how many people in my Cantonese class at the University of Hong Kong were so offended by the words casually applied to them by Cantonese speakers that they dropped out of the class.

  84. Martha said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 7:20 pm

    Question: "Gwailo" supposedly means "foreigner," but is it only used to refer to white people? Do non-white foreigners get called this?

  85. John Rohsenow said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 11:08 pm

    Can't answer that one, but my understanding is that in Hawai'ian "haole" originally meant something like non-Hawai'ian or "foreigner/auslander"
    in general, but now of course it is generally used to refer to Whites only,
    as other groups arrived and were differentiated, e.g. "pakkay" for Chinese,
    (after their carrying poles). I suspect that similar things happen elsewhere,
    especially in evolving, colonial situations.

  86. tzk said,

    September 18, 2018 @ 2:46 am

    John Rohsenow makes a good point about power dynamics. In America, one reason the n-word is so taboo is that it evokes this very gnarly apparatus of exclusion and violence that is in no way abstract or theoretical.

    Hong Kong is a pretty segregated place in many ways. Most people in a position to be called gwailo (mostly, comfortsbly situated Westerners living or traveling in HK) probably don’t have a lot of structural reasons to care about the semiological implications. I know I didn’t when I lived there, and I never minded being called gwailo because it didn’t signify a dynamic that affected my daily life very much. I speak Mandarin but not much Cantonese at all, and don’t mind the word’s implication of otherness. But if, like Victor, you’ve made the effort to learn Cantonese and become invested in HK society, it has to be a different story.

    The Mandarin word “laowai” has been mentioned a few times in this thread. I think any conspicuously Western person who’s spent a lot of years living in China and tried to integrate to some degree has sometimes experienced the pain of exclusion alongside all the various forms of privilege you get. The word “laowai” seems to want everyone to agreee not only that you’re foreign, but that this is the main thing about you. That reductive emphaticness vis-a-vis something more clinical like “waiguoren” can really feel crummy sometimes, particularly if you grew up as a white person in America or Europe and are used to the fact of your race being mostly invisible. I imagine gwailo is the same if you’re in that position in Hong Kong.

    For all that, “laowai” and “gwailo” don’t feel inherently mean to me, at least not all the time. I often use “laowai” in reference to Westerners when I want to emphasize that maybe their Chinese isn’t so good, or that they are being dumb about Chinese business practices, or that maybe you should not tell them what it is they just ate. (Maybe that is mean actually.)

  87. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 18, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

    Bryan Hann: One good possibility for understanding "X is offensive" is "You can safely assume X is offensive to a large subset of Y."

  88. John Rohsenow said,

    September 18, 2018 @ 7:14 pm

    As luck(?) would have it, the latest issue of the Economist magazine's
    Open Future column is entitled "What to make of “reverse racism”:
    "In American society, disparaging remarks about White people as a whole that would be unacceptable for other sets of people are largely permissible and carry fewer repercussions. That is because of history and context. Whites have not experienced the systematic harm that, say, Blacks have. But making extreme, generalising statements about a whole group of people is nevertheless facile, unhelpful and feeds the alt-right."

  89. Philip Taylor said,

    September 19, 2018 @ 5:31 am

    Given that the Economist is published in Westminster (London, UK), it is perhaps significant that it prefaces its remarks with "In American society …". One might have expected that if the same situation obtained in the UK, the Economist would have been less specific and more general in terms of the geography of the problem. Which leads me to wonder whether the issue is less about colour and more about "race" (in the most general sense of the term) — e.g., do American non-white citizens feel more isolated, less integrated and less privileged than their British counterparts ?

  90. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

    "Gweilo: the violent and racially charged history of the controversial word:

    The great ‘gweilo’ debate continues – a look at China’s history reveals how bloody battles led to its application"

    By Wee Kek Koon
    19 Sep 2018


  91. Bryan Hann said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 5:30 am

    Victor Mair:

    >>It really just depends on the context, and the speaker's intent."

    >No, many people would never want to hear that word directed at them.

    So don't use it in a context of them hearing it.

    So Yes, it really just depends on the context, and on the speaker's intent.

  92. Bryan Hann said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 5:33 am

    John Rohsenow:

    You got 'newf' correct. And Nfld. has lots of parking spaces! (Except downtown St. John's ;) )

    Now get off my lawn! :)

  93. Bryan Hann said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 5:37 am

    Ellen Kozisek said,

    @Bryan Hann

    Yes, because they aren't speakers of AAVE, aren't speaking AAVE. Or so it seems to me.

    I meant, could a hearer tell the difference? Would they be phonemically the same?

  94. Bryan Hann said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 5:40 am

    Jerry Friedman said,
    September 18, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

    Bryan Hann: One good possibility for understanding "X is offensive" is "You can safely assume X is offensive to a large subset of Y."

    For which Y? A large subset of a small set Y is a small set.

    If I take Y = { Prickly uncle Joe }, every X is offensive.

  95. Ellen K. said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 7:24 am

    @Bryan Hann

    Yes, a listener can tell the difference between someone speaking standard English with a British or Australian accent versus someone speaking AAVE.

  96. Martha said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 10:37 am

    Maybe I'm misinterpreting Bryan Hann's original question, but I thought it was not "Can a listener hear the difference between an Australian English speaker saying 'nigger' and an AAVE speaker saying 'nigga'" but rather "Can a listener hear the difference between an Australian English speaker saying 'nigger' and 'nigga.'"

  97. Martha said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 10:38 am

    (Australian English being just an example of r-less English.)

  98. John Rohsenow said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 11:21 am

    While it is true that any one individual may or may not react to being referred to by a certain term as "racist", nevertheless from a larger perspective the general connotation(s) of such terms (and in fact even one's individual reaction, whether one is aware of it or not) is generally a function of power dynamics. This is similar to reactions to speech "accents", as discussed in this recent research by Okim Kang on reactions to accents in the USA: http://www.knau.org/post/brain-food-accent-bias-andcommunication
    "…"Perhaps if you are the person in power, or in authority", Kang says, "you don’t think this exists or this is not a big problem. It doesn’t matter, but [if we] think about immigrants….some are students from different language backgrounds. Their parents, immigrants. They are going through this kind of discrimination. It’s happening all the time."

  99. Philip Taylor said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 3:24 pm

    Or perhaps : http://www.knau.org/post/brain-food-accent-bias-and-communication (additional hyphen).

  100. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 22, 2018 @ 11:18 pm

    I wrote: One good possibility for understanding "X is offensive" is "You can safely assume X is offensive to a large subset of Y."

    Bryan Hann answered: For which Y? A large subset of a small set Y is a small set.

    Are you joking, Bryan? If someone says gweilo is offensive, they mean to non-Chinese people. If they say "Newf" is, they mean to Newfoundlanders.

  101. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 22, 2018 @ 11:20 pm

    …and possibly to others.

  102. Philip Taylor said,

    September 23, 2018 @ 4:25 am

    I think that we need to differentiate between "is offensive", "is intended to be offensive" and "can be taken as offensive". As a gwei-lo myself, I am personally not offended if someone Sinitic refers to me as such (unless, of course, it is preceded by a pejorative intensifier such as "f***ing" and used in such a way as to make it clear that offence is intended), and I certainly have referred to myself as a gwei-lo on many occasions (the family into which I married are Vietnamese/Chinese). I would therefore argue that gwei-lo is not of itself offensive, but (a) can be used in such a way that it is clear that it was intended to be offensive, and may for some gwei-lo be offensive even if not intended as such by the speaker.

  103. Kevin Yeung said,

    September 23, 2018 @ 7:12 pm

    I find it hard to believe words can be universally, objectively offensive, any more than the 700 nm wavelength universally, objectively red, or 440 Hz universally, objectively A. I think we're straying into a philosophical debate of qualia.

    I say this as a Hongkonger learning English as a second language since a child, and though I was aware of the word chink (and jap, etc.) it never managed to insult me as much as more innocent Cantonese swear words. I attribute that to my (fortunate) lack of abuse by gwei-lo. I propose many British/American/Australian Chinese would find chink far more hurting not because of the word itself but the everyday abuse the word carries.

    I also see chink as a cute way to shorten Chinese (and jap Japanese), as sunglasses are shortened to sunnies and barbeque to barbie. I find it hard to believe sunnies and barbies are offended. Hence qualia.

    Many (most?) Hong Kong gwei-lo hold powerful positions at work and live privileged lives. I don't deny micro-aggressions and resentment (and the occasional over-the-top cases that make headlines) but offence and racism? Hmm… I propose we don't all understand and experience institutionalised, systematic racism the same way.

    Finally, as I said before, and Mr Philip Taylor said also, unless I say f***king gwei-lo or damned gwei-lo with gusto it's not an insult. I can also say to my Cantonese speaking friends "Let me introduce to you my gwei-lo friend from Australia." I fail to see the insult.

    Ultimately I think it's up to us to find meanings in words based on our unique life experience. Prescriptive vs descriptive grammar? Because the dictionaries say so doesn't mean it's true. I think we can agree to disagree here.

  104. Ricardo said,

    September 23, 2018 @ 8:42 pm

    @Kevin Yeung

    I understand that you are speaking for yourself but never have I heard anyone else say that they see "chink as a cute way to shorten Chinese (and jap Japanese), as sunglasses are shortened to sunnies and barbeque to barbie."

    Such a pronouncement strike as not just culturally insensitive but almost incrediby stupid.

  105. Philip Taylor said,

    September 24, 2018 @ 4:35 am

    Ricardo — Kevin Yeung is "a Hongkonger learning English as a second language since a child". How can his analysis of "chink" therefore be "culturally insensitive" ? It is not a word that I would use, any more than I would use "Paki", "nigger", "wop" or "yid", but if a Chinese person himself is not offended by "chink" then it is surely not appropriate for a non-Chinese person to criticise his analysis as "culturally insensitive".

    As regards "chink" and "jap" being analogous to "sunnies" and "barbie", I suspect that the proximity of Australia to Hong Kong means that Hong Kong residents are frequently exposed to these antipodean colloquialisms, and thus to them seemingly analogous foreshortenings such as "chink" and "jap" may appear quite reasonable.

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