Ethnic Irony

By Hannah Lee

In our relatively enlightened times, it is the heedless individual who utters a blatant pejorative term, be it a racial, sexist, or any other challenging aspect of life.  We have sensitized ears and it is unseemly to appear prejudiced.  There is even an attempt to erase past grievances in the misguided campaign to replace the word, “nigger,” with “slave” in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, although the climax of the story would be lost on the reader when the character of the black man, Jim, realizes that he’s been free all along.  Good teaching requires putting history and culture into context with all its flawed and malignant chronicles.

There is a companion shadow world of indirect slurs, in which terms are coined with the negative traits attributed to a particular ethnic group.  Amongst linguists, this usage is called “ironyms,” a compound word representing “lexicalized irony.”  Researching this sordid aspect of language development, I came across the fairly unfamiliar terms of Dutch courage (bravado under intoxication), Welsh rabbit (a cheese dish made without meat), and Irish twins (siblings born within the same year).   The more familiar ones in contemporary usage are notably all about monetary use: to gyp (cheat) someone, to welsh (renege) on a bet, and to jew someone down (bargain hard).  The terms incorporating Chinese— Chinese ace, Chinese anthem, Chinese cigarette, Chinese fire drill, Chinese handball, Chinese landing, Chinese puzzle, and Chinese whispers— all connote items or events that are confused, disorganized, or difficult to understand, according to the British usage of the adjective during World War I.

I have long known that Chinese checkers were not really Chinese, but I have since learned that it is a game developed in Germany, whose original name referred to its star-shaped game board.  When the Pressman company introduced it in the United States in 1928, they initially called it Hop-Ching checkers, later settling on Chinese checkers, presumably to refer to the erratic hopping allowed of the gaming pieces.  Other usages of ethnic terminology are maybe less benign, but you could be sure no Frenchman would call his fried potatoes, French fries, (derived from the presumed custom of poor French-speaking Belgians who served fried potatoes instead of fried fish when the rivers were frozen) nor would a Dane refer to the breakfast pastry as a Danish (in actuality, of Austrian origin).

As an immigrant to the United States, I did not encounter Chinese auctions until I came into the Orthodox Jewish community.  It seems to be a popular low-cost fundraiser amongst churches and synagogues.  Not Chinese and not even an auction, it is a lottery in which the bidder purchases tickets for specific prizes within different categories.  It has become my campaign to lobby against its usage, but by the time I hear of such events, the organizers have already spent money on the publicity and are loathe to change the wording.  It’s inconceivable to me that any organization would allow itself to be perceived as prejudiced these days.  Prejudice when it becomes commonplace is even more insidious, because well-meaning people become complicit.