In a previous post, I wrote about my searches on Google’s ngram viewer on the relative historical use of the terms “chink” and “Chink.” Ngram viewer’s dataset only goes to 2008/9, but another Google web tool, trends, tracks the text of web searches (at Google, obviously) since 2004 – yes, trends is a text search of text searches, so for those folks who love self-referentiality, it is in effect a meta-search engine. Since they draw on different data, actual print usage versus web search text, the two tools aren’t directly comparable. Nevertheless, a quick check on Google trends for the term “chink” was interesting.
[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.
The first time someone directed the word “chink” at me, I had a visceral and almost violent reaction to it. Excited to have arrived for my freshman year of college, I took the “T” to visit Boston for the first time and having just exited the Green line station on the Boston Common, a young woman approached me to give me a leaflet. I wasn’t interested, so I said “no thank you” and continued walking when I heard her call after me, “f**king chink.” Without thinking, I turned around wanting to yell something equally offensive in response and raised my hand back wanting to slap her for the offense. Fortunately, I had walked a few paces and the distance allowed me enough time to realize and reconsider what I was about to do. I turned around again and walked away, mad as hell, fuming in frustration, but also determined not to let the situation, rather than my considered intentions, get the best of me.
I’ve recalled the incident many times since, most recently during the brouhaha in February over ESPN’s brief and temporary use of the phrase, “chink in the armor,” in a headline about Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks basketball player. While I thought its use was inappropriate and ill-considered, I also found much of the reaction to the headline unnecessarily uninformed and hyperbolic, and more importantly, misdirected.
I’m writing a longer piece about Jeremy Lin’s media sensation and its implications, but wanted to post a few of my notes on what I call the Linsanity:
As a Taiwanese American, a basketball fan since the glory days of the Portland Trailblazers, and a Harvard graduate, I would be remise not to have heard of Jeremy Lin. Through friends and occasional reports, I followed his career off and on before it became the media sensation that became the Linsanity this past February.
Like many others, I am excited at his recent NBA success. Having spent my share of time in gyms and playground pick-up games trying to play point guard, I have also been amused by the superficial similarities—including the deficiencies—of his play and my attempts at the same. It remains to be seen if he can maintain his high level of play through this season and beyond, but Lin has already demonstrated that he is more than capable and belongs on the court.
At the same time, I was also disturbed by aspects of the Linsanity, including Asian American commentary, and what it expressed about race and its contours within public discourse. Sports is an enormous and significant segment of our popular culture, but in relating its history, race apparently still requires a particular note of authenticity.
This week’s New Yorker has a review of a new book, The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings. In the book, Hitchens traces disputes over the proper use of the English language over the last century, dividing its participants between prescriptivists, who argue for maintaining language’s rules governing writing and speech and descriptivists, who argue that language’s fluidity allows only description of its changing practices. He aligns himself with the latter while the reviewer, Joan Acocella, takes a more agonistic position, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of the various warring sides and observing that “nowadays, everyone is moving to the center.” While the book and review usefully discuss an interesting historical subject, the language war they present was more properly a culture war. Its skirmishes and battles concerned, not with language, but its civilizing effect.
Yet more on Aladdin:
Authenticity, however, has always been complicated where Aladdin is concerned. The stories of the Thousand and One Nights derive from Persian, Indian, Arabic, Turkish, and Egyptian folk tale and literary traditions that span several historical periods and were passed on orally for centuries within Islamic society and culture before being recorded. Extant Arabic manuscripts fall into two main manuscript traditions, the one Syrian, the other Egyptian, which differ in which tales they include and in what order. The various manuscripts share a common core of stories, which include an Arabic cycle involving the 9th century caliph Harun al-Rashid and others from his era, including vizier Ja’far and Abu Nuwas, and another group involving 13th and 14th century figures from medieval Cairo. They also share a narrative framework for the collection, the story, from 7th century Persia, of Shahrazad (or, as she is better known, Scheherezade), the new bride who begins, without concluding a new story for her husband, King Shahriyar, each night to avoid execution the next morning, eventually, after a thousand nights, winning his pardon and her life.
Continuing last week’s post about Aladdin:
The Disney film made Aladdin Arabic (and an accused thief instead of a ne’er-do-well tailor’s son) and renamed the princess of his affections Jasmine—from the original’s Badroulbadour (Bedrulbudour, Bedr-el-Budur, Badr al-Budur). Perhaps more significantly, its villain was not the African magician/sorcerer of the literary versions. Instead, following the 1940 adaptation of Thief of Bagdad, the Disney film’s villain was the evil and conniving court advisor, Grand Vizier Jafar (Jaffar in the 1940 film, played by Veidt, its star). The name and title derives from a figure who appears in several of the Thousand and One Nights tales and is loosely based on an actual 9th century historical figure, Ja’far al-Barmaki, vizier to the caliph of Baghdad. Another 9th century historical figure, the poet Abu Nuwas, who appears as a court jester figure in the Nights, provided the name for the thief in the 1940 film—which had divided the 1924 film’s title character into two: a prince, Ahmad, and a thief, Abu—and Aladdin’s sidekick monkey in the Disney film.
I’ve been interested in Aladdin for many years since I learned working on a Smithsonian project on ethnic imagery in advertising that in the 19th and into the 20th century, he was presented as a Chinese figure. Recently I’ve been working on and off on a piece about Aladdin that I don’t quite know how to finish. Here’s the first part of it:
I’ve always loved to read. When I discovered libraries growing up, I read anything and everything I could find. One of the subjects I devoured was fairy tales and folktales and one of my earliest sources for them were the various colored books of stories collected and published in the late 19th century by Andrew Lang. It was in The Blue Fairy Book that I first encountered the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” At the time, I found the story simple and straightforward, but magical and marvelous nevertheless. As an adult and as a historian, I’ve learned the story of the story is anything but simple.
In Astounding Days, his autobiographical reminiscence of a youth reading science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke recalled that English fans learned that Woolworth’s was the best place to find the pulp magazines where the stories they wanted to read. “According to legend, all these ‘Yank pulps’ invaded the United Kingdom as ballast in returning cargo ships. Presumably it was worth disposing of unsold issues in this way, rather than recycling the paper.” Colorfully entertaining, Clarke’s recollection also illustrated the incidental—and often unseen and unconsidered—consequences of distribution for publishing’s sales and circulation.
One of my favorite passages from Raymond Williams’ cultural criticism and commentary is from his essay, “Communications and Community.” Encountering it in his book, Resources of Hope, it helped me realize the broader sensibility I wanted to take in my dissertation. I printed a copy of the passage and taped it to my monitor with “READ ME!” handwritten for emphasis above while I wrote to remind me to maintain its perspective. Its point, a response to post-World War Two developments in advertising, marketing, and culture and their academic study, remains relevant in contemporary considerations about social media in the age of the Internet.
“For it is a terrifying thought that most of the real work on communications is now being done by advertisers, to discover more effective ways of selling the products of whoever hires them. It is just as bad that almost all our terms for talking about communication come from America, where you among some good sociology a very largely debased and hired sociology. There nothing is an effect or impression, it is always an impact. People even are not people, they are mass audiences, they are socio-economic groups, they are targets. And the aggression within those terms, the aggression within ‘impact,’ the aggression within ‘target,’ is the expression of people who want to control. But the basis of a democratic system is that ordinary people should have control in their own hands, that they should not be targets for anybody.”