The Chink files

Two items: first, a recent flap about sports reporting using the expression Chink in the armor in stories about Chinese-American (well, Taiwanese-American) basketball phenom Jeremy Lin; and second, e-mail to me objecting to my characterizing Chink as an epithet specifically for the Chinese (with my correspondent maintaining that it applied to all people of East Asian descent — because of their slit eyes).

Item 1 came from Victor Steinbok on ADS-L yesterday, who reported that chink in the armor was used in an ESPN interview with retired NBA player Walt Frazier and Chink in the Armor? as a mobile feed headline on ESPN. The anchor who did the interview, Max Bretos, has been suspended and the anonymous writer of the headline has been fired.

Bretos could be defended — as a number of people have, for instance Ta-Nehisi Coates, here — as having come up with a common expression on the fly, in conversation, to refer to a weakness, though in the context, Bretos’s choice of words was unfortunate and merits an apology. The writer is another matter. As Coates puts it:

Making catchy puns is part of writing headlines. Headlines are also written–you actually have to take a moment to think about them.  With that in mind, it’s  really hard to believe that the person who wrote “Chink In The Armor” to describe Lin didn’t see the double-entrendre [the “demeaning punnery”, as Jon Lighter put it on ADS-L]. If they didn’t, they shouldn’t be writing headlines anyway.

(Note: we’re protective of Jeremy Lin in these parts. He’s a Palo Alto High School graduate.)

On to item 2, an e-mail message back in December from someone with a Korean family name (this will turn out to be relevant), about my “Vanishing slurs” posting (here). on the slurs Chink and Jap. My correspondent

thought that the last statement was a bit misinformed,

” I hear rumors that the rich, famous, and socially advantaged among us sometimes dabble in cocaine these days as then, but we no longer sing about it playfully, just as decent folk no longer use epithets for the Chinese and Japanese. Well, not in public or in places where we might get quoted.”

The term chink by definition is a small crack in a wall  or narrow opening, but it is a derogatory term not only for Chinese, but for people of all people of East Asian de[s]cent by remarking on how the opening[s] in their eyes are very narrow .

I thought you should understand the full depth of this term from the aforementioned statement and that it is not exclusive to “Chinese.” [“Full depth?” Is a slur more grave if it applies to a larger group than if it applies to a smaller one?]

My main interest here is in the etymology for Chink offered by my correspondent, which is quite clearly false (though inventive), but there’s also the question of how Chink is actually used as a slur; it turns out that it is indeed sometimes used to refer to more than the Chinese — in particular, to Koreans.

First, the etymology of the ethnonym Chink. It’s as clear as these things can be that the disparaging ethnonym is built on the Chin- of China and Chinese (with somewhat irregular phonology, presumably to provide a monosyllable with a lax vowel, which is a template for one type of disparaging ethnonym, as in Jap, Wop, wog, Yid, and Spic(k); otherwise, the clipping would by Chine, which desn’t seem to be attested. OED2 has Chink as

Etymology:  Irreg. < China n.1 and adj.
A Chinese person. Also attrib. (Derogatory.)

(with cites from 1901 on), but Green’s Dictionary of Slang (which has it derived from China or from Chinese ching-ching, citing DARE) takes the noun back much further:

1 (orig. Aus.) a derog. term for a Chinese person [cites from 1852, 1885, 1895 and thereafter]

My correspondent’s chink proposal is a lovely example of false etymology. From Wikipedia:

A false etymology (pseudoetymology, paraetymology or paretymology) is a popularly held but false belief about the origins of specific words [or phrases], especially where these originate in “common-sense” assumptions rather than serious research.

Such etymologies often have the feel of urban legends, and can be much more colorful than the typical etymologies found in dictionaries, often involving stories of unusual practices in particular subcultures (e.g. Oxford students from non-noble families being forced to write sine nobilis by their name, soon abbreviated to s.nob., hence the word snob). Many recent examples are based on acronyms (or “backronyms”).

The guiding principle behind etymythology is narratophilia: a good story is better than a dull one, even if the dull one’s the truth (some postings here, here, and here). The story about slit-eyed or slant-eyed people vs. round-eyed people (note folk anatomy here) is simply more interesting, hence more believable to some people, than derivation from Chinese.

So much for etymology. On to the actual use of Chink as a slur: beyond derogatory reference to Chinese people, above, there are extended senses. From Green’s Dictionary:

2 a nickname for a Chinese person or someone with Chinese features [cites from c.1950 on]

3 (orig. US) the Chinese language [cite from 1936, along with Spick used for the Spanish language]

4 (orig. US) a derog. term for any Asian person [cites from 1942 – Nelson Algren – on, with reference to Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos]

Green also has the adjective Chink ‘Chinese’, characterized as a derogatory term describing East Asian people in general (cites from 1903 — “in some Chink joint” — on, though almost all seem to refer to the Chinese.

So we have about a hundred years, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, with Chink, referring to people, used exclusively for the Chinese. Then we see extensions to others — other East Asians and further afield (west to Southeast Asia, east to the Philippines). This is a pattern of referential spread characteristic of speakers who have little close experience with the domain in question, so that distinctions within that domain aren’t of much significance to them: for them, everything in the domain is pretty much alike.

In the domain of racial and ethnic classifications, semantic extensions are very common. We see wop, first used for Italians, extended to other southern Europeans, Greeks in particular; Mexican, used by some speakers in the western U.S. to refer to people from anywhere in Central America as well as from Mexico; Puerto Rican, used by some speakers in the northeastern U.S. to refer to latinos from anywhere in the Caribbean; and so on. Well, they all look (and talk) alike, people say.

I’ll close with an excellent old joke, available on many sites under titles like “Goldberg, Greenberg, iceberg”. This electronic version from

You: hi
Stranger: hi
You: name?
Stranger: chun wu at your service
You: alexander goldberg
Stranger: sup
You: u kno i never forgave u koreans for attacking pearl harbor
Stranger: uhh. im chinese…and that was the japanese who attacked it
You: chinese, japanese, korean…whats the difference
Stranger: …….
Stranger: u serious?
You: yeah
Stranger: …..
Stranger: u kno i never forgave u jews for sinking the titanic
You: that was an iceberg
Stranger: goldberg, greenberg, iceberg. whats the difference

(Also note Hercule Poirot’s exasperated “I am not a Frenchie; I am a Belgie!”)


7 Responses to “The Chink files”

  1. BeSlayed Says:

    In Indian English, “chinky” is used (usually unabashedly) to describe anyone of ‘East Asian’ appearance (concentrating on eye shape), which in fact includes a large segment of the Indian populace (Northeast India).

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    You seem to be in disagreement with Kevin Drum, who is defending the headline writer, Anthony Federico.

    Option A: Deliberate or not, Federico’s headline was acutely hurtful and offensive and ESPN had no alternative. An abject apology followed by Federico’s firing was really their only choice. Option B: It was a momentary and inadvertent lapse that was removed within half an hour and immediately apologized for. It deserved a reprimand and a game plan to avoid similar problems in the future, not the death penalty.
    I vote for Option B. We need to reserve the serious ordnance for real acts of malicious racism, not minor lapses of judgment. Not only is it the right thing to do, but real racism gets trivialized when stuff like this sucks up so much oxygen. A little generosity of spirit could go a long way here.

    It appears, Federico’s defense is that he’s used “chink in the armor” in headlines “at least 100 times”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Context, context, context.

      • Victor Steinbok Says:

        Absolutely… But we’re not talking about John McCain who still uses “Gook” regularly and means “nothing” by it. The guy is fairly young and may never even heard of it as a slur. I’m not sure any of these guys get a pass–certainly not the radio guy, but he’s not sanctionable by ESPN since he does not work for them.

        If you want the guy to be fired for not knowing the difference–when it’s his job to recognize such things–I’d be on board with that. But if you think he should be fired for a deliberate insulting pun, I don’t think I can get behind that quite yet. But networks are known for having an itchy trigger finger (for the most part–Mike Barnicle has been on the air far too long and Pat Buchanan’s excision was about 20 years overdue). I suppose, it doesn’t matter–the combination of those two covers pretty much everything–reasons for firing, I mean, not TV talking heads.

  3. At 8 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] eye thing came up in my posting on the ethnic slur Chink (here) and is now the topic of exchanges on ADS-L, about the clouded history of the descriptors […]

  4. Brief mention: Chink, the slur 8/30/12 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] That’s Chink as in ‘Chinese’, Assam being close to China and Myanmar (the westernmost country in southeast Asia, or Indo-China). On Chink as a slur, see my “Chink files” posting. […]

  5. Terminological precedence « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] posting here, and then one on […]

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