Why does “Chinaman” carry a negative, denigrating connotation, while “Englishman” does not?

Thanks to posters, and in particular those I agree with 🙂 — Lee Ballentine, Sng Kok Joon Leonard.

Some answers brought up how the word was coined, so I went to the Oxford English Dictionary. As it turns out, the entry for Chinaman has not been updated yet, and Google Books was if anything more informative.

Of the words for “inhabitant of China”, Chinese has been in use since the 17th century (with the plural Chineses). Chinese is an Italian word, and Italian missionaries were the most prominent Europeans to have had early contact with China.

Chinaman shows up in the 18th century. The first meaning attested in the OED is “someone who sells china, i.e. porcelain”; the earliest instance I can see is from 1746: The gentleman’s magazine. The word used with reference to Chinese people first shows up in Google Books in a history of the English East India Company, from 1759: An Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time.

(Oh, Lee Ballentine? “Chinaman’s chance” shows up in OED too. “Colloquial, now derogatory”.)

Sng Kok Joon Leonard suspects that Chinaman is simply a calque into English of the Chinese Zhongguo ren. It could be, either as mocking of Chinese grammar (as some posters suspect), or as simply a more English-like name than the Romance Chinese. (Cf. Frenchman, Dutchman; *Chin-ese-man combines two suffixes, so it wouldn’t work.) My own suspicion is that once chinaman was coined referring to porcelain-salesmen, the transfer to inhabitants of China would have been irresistible anyway.

At any rate, yes, the early usages of Chinaman were written by English colonialists and orientalists, in the lead up to or during the 100 years of humiliation. But I don’t buy it that they were meant to be derogatory. The next instance is in a 1779 Malabar–English dictionary: A Dictionary of the English and Malabar Languages; I don’t see why you would bother to be derogatory in that context.

The 1872 instance, which is the first the OED cites, is if anything trying to show an empathetic picture of China: The Foreigner in Far Cathay. As the modern blurb puts it, “The author is determined to give a picture of the country and its inhabitants that is realistic and free of the tired clichés often found in contemporary Western accounts of the country. […] Concerned that the West should show China the respect it deserves, he attempts especially to capture the essence of the Chinese character.”

The book mostly uses Chinese, but occasionally uses Chinaman. The instance OED quotes is:

It has been observed that drunkenness is not a Chinese failing: on the contrary, I am happy to be able to bear witness that John Chinaman is a most temperate creature.

Sounds condescending? Are you sure? Creature does not mean beast, after all. And why is he calling his exemplar “John Chinaman”? Because he’s invoking John Bull. He’s giving Mr Average Chinese the same name he’d give Mr Average Briton. That may be patronising, but it is not vituperative.

Like others said: Chinaman was not born a racist name. Chinaman became a racist name, because it picked up those connotations in the West, particularly with Australian and American panic over Chinese migration. And Chinaman was susceptible to picking up those connotations, because it was a newer, less common, and likely more colloquial word than Chinese.

It picked up the racism of its speakers; like any word might have. It’s irredeemable now.

It makes me think of the closest equivalent word in Greek. The Modern Greek word for Turkish woman is turkala. It sounds derogatory to me. But it sounds derogatory because Greeks have traditionally hated Turks, and it’s grammatically odd (the only instance of that suffix in the language). And there is no good word to replace it, unlike Chinaman and Chinese (turkissa is outnumbered by turkala 100:1; tourkida remains a hypothetical form). People on forums online wonder what form they should use instead of turkala. But as they get more friendly and familiar with Turks (including Turkish women), I suspect, the derogatory tone of turkala will likely just go away.

What was the profession of 1st Greeks who arrived in Australia and became famous for that?

You’ve read something somewhere, OP, I can tell, but I’m at a loss about where. The answer, pace Romain Bouchard, is not in Wikipedia, but I don’t remember it.

Let me try and reconstruct it.

The big Greek migration wave into Australia was in the 1950s–70s. The stereotype was milk bar owner (= grocery story) or fish and chip owner, because that was highly visible (my parents were among them). Less visible, but I suspect more common, was factory worker.

Milk bars are now just about extinct, and the fish and chip shops have bifurcated: some boutique nouveau fish and chip shops are Greek, but the common hole in the wall kind of places are now Chinese. As for factories, like much of the First World, we don’t have any any more. So the new wave of migrants from Greece (fleeing austerity and connecting with relatives in Australia) seem to have ended up here in Greektown Melbourne, mainly in the service industries.

This is not the time frame OP is asking about.

There was a Greek community worthy of the name since I guess the 1890s; the first Greek church in Melbourne was founded in 1900.

But I think the trade OP is alluding to is sponge divers. There were sponge divers in the north of the country, a trade practiced in Greece in the Dodecanese; that trade also accounts for the sizeable Greek community in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The pearling company Paspaley was set up in the 1920s by a Greek Paspalis family.

I do know that the pre-War Greek population of Australia are disproportionately from a few islands—Castellorizo (including the Paspaleys), Kalymnos, Ithaca in Melbourne. Castellorizo and Kalymnos are both sponge diver islands.

How many days did it take for you to get 1000 answer views per day in Quora? What did you do to achieve more views?

First time I hit 1000 views was two months in; last time I fell below 1000 was nine months in. At 13 months in, I’m between 2500 (on days I don’t write) and 5500 (when I write something that goes popular).

It’s been answered by others so often: write what you’re interested in, cultivate friendships with other Quorans, use pictures appropriately, have some levity. And as has also been commented by so many others, the answers that go viral are not the answers you’re most proud of. I’ve done some good joking dialogues, I’d like to think; some entertaining (if not good) cartoons; some well-researched linguistic speculations; some insightful explorations of national character.

And what do my most viewed answers say about Quora? From Nick Nicholas’ answer to What does your top answer on Quora say about you? What’s the story behind your answer? Did you have any idea it would become so popular?

  • Ooh, Greek obscenity!
  • There are many Indians on Quora.
  • Richard White is a popular Quoran.
  • Ooh, toasting in Greek!
  • Lots of Quorans are anxious about how to spell.

Does your language misuse grammatical case or gender to make a rhetorical point?

I’m glad you asked, OP.

Language is a system, as the structuralists of yore argued. And if there is a paradigm of cases, then people will exploit choices in the paradigm to communicate different kinds of meaning.

Even when those choices should be grammatically incorrect.

The example I have in mind is from Modern Greek. Modern Greek has a vocative, which is still distinct from the nominative in one declension.

The vocative is used to address people. The nominative is used to name the subject of a sentence, which is who you are taking about.

If you use the nominative instead of the vocative, you are choosing to name someone instead of addressing them. That is pretty much the distinction between talking to someone, and talking at them.

Which is, of course, rude.

It is also ungrammatical, but there are two contexts where it is commonplace. The first is the expression ep, kyrios! Which corresponds closely to hey mister! That’s kyrios, not the vocative Kyrie. It is not meant to be deferential.

The second context? It is a context where no deference is meant to be shown to people. Where people are forced to accept that they are part of a machine, and not autonomous agents. And for that reason, people are not addressed, for a request to comply to instruction: they are named, as those who will carry out the instruction automatically.

Being addressed in the nominative is rather popular in the Greek army. Papadopoulos! Three days confined to barracks! Papadopoulos is not going to be shown the courtesy of the vocative Papadopoule. That would involve acknowledging him as an individual…

Could Google Translate maintain a central codex “language” therefore bypassing artifacts that come from English-as-central-language issue?

Google Translate, like many machine translation projects, does not maintain [math]n^2[/math] language pairs when adding languages to its bank; it appears to maintain just n:English mappings—so that a translation from, say, Greek to Persian is pretty clearly via English as an interlanguage. That is a clear scalability issue, if you’re going to maintain the number of languages that Google does.

Is there a better interlanguage than English? Maybe, if you’ve got the resources to handcraft one. Esperantists are familiar with the Distributed Language Translation project in the 80s and 90s, which was using Esperanto as an interlanguage for European Union translating. (An Esperanto with a fair few tweaks, and with rule-based translation.) Predictably, it ran out of funding in 1997.

And if you’re using statistical methods rather than handcrafting rules (which has been the mainstream in machine translation for a very long time now), then any target language is going to have to be a human language, for which you can get a big enough corpus to do statistics to begin with. That means, unfortunately, that English as an interlanguage for machine translation between a large number of pairs of languages actually is as good as you’re going to get.

What you’d hope is that other language pairs, not involving English, get their own statistical training; for all I know, that is happening. But that will still have to be prioritised by demand: Japanese–Chinese or French–German is more likely to be realised than Greek–Persian.