more on “chink”

[Classes ended yesterday so I’m in the process of updating and publishing posts I wrote this fall.]

In May, in the aftermath of the controversy over the use of the phrase “chink in the armor” as a ESPN headline for an article about Jeremy Lin, I wrote a post about the term “chink” and its historical use and origin. This fall I’ve been thinking about the digital humanities and data visualization for my courses and I remembered Google’s ngram viewer. It’s an online tool that draws on the digitalization of books and other print materials that are the basis for Google Books. It allows you to can chart the frequency with which a word (or words) occurs in that database. Because the database includes historical works, in effect the ngram viewer charts the historical use of words in print. I decided to use it to check the arguments I made in my previous post.

I began with a comparison of the frequency of “chink” versus that of “Chink.” My thought was that the capitalization of the letter C would separate the much older original use and meaning from the newer – by my account – racially derogatory term. The separation wouldn’t be exact since there be occasions when older use would also be capitalized at the beginning of a sentence, but the ngram viewer is by nature aggregate and meant for broad rather than exact characterization and observation.


The ngram chart confirmed that the non-capitalized use is both more common and longer-used term historically. It also confirms that “Chink” (capitalized) has not been used for centuries, but emerged in the late 19th century, hitting a high in the 1920s and peaking again in the 1970s and 80s. The surprise for me was how gradual and late the peak in the 20s was, but it made sense in its own way: the rise of the racial term coincided with Chinese exclusion, but exclusion’s popularity and success ironically might also have made use of the racial term superfluous until Asian exclusion generally rose as a significant issue in the late 10s and 20s.

Another possibility is that the use increased with the rise, development, and proliferation of different forms and formats of popular fiction: late dime novels, cheap libraries, and pulp magazines in the early 20th century. The ngram viewer conveniently links to chronologically periodized examples from Google Books. In my quick browsing of the search results, I couldn’t find examples of the racial use before 1900 but there were a number of samples from the titles and content of popular fiction: Street and Smith’s Buffalo Bill and the Chink War and a number of titles in a detective series featuring a team of Secret Service agents, Old and Young King Brady: The Bradys and the “Chink” Smugglers [quotations in the original perhaps signifying the term’s new and not yet recognized use], The Bradys and the Opium King, etc.  Google Books also pointed to other titles such as: Walter Carter’s (1912) The Coon and the Chink: a vaudeville sketch in one act; Ernest Thompson Seton’s (1900) Chink, a woolly coated little dog; and other stories from Lives of the hunted and Wild animals at home; and Marie Bellow Lowndes’ (1912) The Chink in the Armour.

To draw the comparison more broadly, I compared “chink,”  “Chink,” and “Chinaman,” which I argued in my previous post was an earlier usage that was also unflattering and derogatory. The ngram confirmed the latter’s more common use and charted its rise, peak around 1900, and slow decline.


I also compared  “Chink” and “Chinee,” the latter term rising sharply from nothing around 1870 then slowly declining relative to the former.


For another comparison between different racial terms, I charted “Chink” and  “Chinaman” relative to “Jap.” As the ngram shows, the latter rose gradually in its use at the beginning of the 20th century, exploded to an extreme in 1941 after Japanese entry into World War Two, then dropped to a level higher than before the war that has slowly declined.


While I was comparing ethnic national derogatory terms, I decided also to look into the relative occurrence of broader, pan-Asian terms. Here is the ngram comparing “Asiatic” and  “Oriental.”


Here is the ngram comparing both terms relative to “Asian.” The historical rise and larger prevalence of this latter term only beginning in the 1950s as the other two declined is interesting.


Here is the ngram for “Asian American.” I charted the term by itself to show its quick rise since the late 60s, confirming its historical rise without confirming the various claims to who coined it or used it first. Because relative to other alternatives, “Asian American” is still not frequently used, the scale of a comparative chart would have reduced its frequency to approaching zero; in other words, it would scarcely be visible relative to the frequency of other terms.