Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

A kind-hearted reader wondered whether Chinaman might not be a derogatory term. I used it the other week.

If you believe the Encarta dictionary, it is not just derogatory - it is offensive. But then, the (mainly Zulu) Encarta (as I like to think of it, in memory of the BBC World Service's invariable phrase each time it mentions the homophonic South African party Inkatha) opines that Montezuma's revenge is offensive, to the shade of Montezuma for all I know. The thing itself can certainly offend.

It is hard to know why Chinaman should be offensive. There seems to be a general reluctance to call foreigners by anything too concrete. Thus Spaniard sounds a bit rude, and so does Jew. 'A Spanish person' or 'a Jewish person' is much more refined. But a Jew wouldn't mind being called 'a Jew', surely, and a Spaniard probably wouldn't notice. Tartars like to be 'Tatars', as if that made it any better. Turks are still, I think, proper Turks.

Chinaman, as the wise Dr Robert Burchfield points out in the New Fowler's, was perfectly polite in 1926, when H.W. Fowler merely pointed out that you would not speak of the generality of Chinamen, but of Chinese. Contrariwise you wouldn't speak of just one Chinese. …

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