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Word in the news: a chink in the armor

A lesson on the perils of saying what you don’t mean

Recently, followers of US basketball got a stark reminder that words often have connotations which stretch beyond our intentions when using them. An editor for ESPN’s mobile website was dismissed from his position for using the phrase a chink in the armor in a headline referring to the first loss by the New York Knicks since the dawn of the so-called “Linsanity” inaugurated by the team’s new point guard phenom, Jeremy Lin. Why the uproar over the use of this common figure of speech which means “a weak spot or vulnerability”? There is more than one word in English spelled C-H-I-N-K (OED has seven noun and four verb homonyms).

The word chink as used in a chink in the armor goes back to the 14th century, and means “a crack or fissure” (it is related to the British word chine, referring to a ravine). However, there is another Chink, dating from the late 19th century, which is an offensive racial slur for a person of Chinese descent. Thus, as the headline of an article about a player of Taiwanese descent, the use of chink in the armor struck some readers as a derogatory play on words. This isn’t the first time that an Asian-related context has turned the otherwise innocuous chink offensive. American political journalist Ben Smith unearthed a 2010 correction in the New York Times in which the paper apologized for offending readers by using the phrase “one chink in computer security” in an article about China-based digital espionage.

There have been similar scandals in recent years over the contextually problematic use of other words which are not labeled in dictionaries as offensive. For instance, the phrase to call a spade a spade has periodically prompted accusations of racism in the US because spade is also a derogatory term for a person of African descent. And in 1999, there was a famous dust-up over the use of the word niggardly by an aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., because of its superficial and completely unrelated resemblance to America’s most notorious racial slur.

It would be both impractical and undesirable to write in such a way as to be completely immune from causing offence, but those in the public eye might be well advised to be on their guard against double meanings which might be interpreted as bigoted or sexist, in the same way that they avoid unintentional double entendre of a sexual nature. Ours is an age of close reading and viral censure, and it is never a good thing for one’s words to overshadow one’s ideas.

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