On the term “Chinese Whispers”

Just a quick one here — I used this term in my previous post and was surprised to see Xian question it — it’s a term that is the standard term for that game in the UK, but is apparently not in use in the US.

Another friend has since told me that she believes that the term has racist connotations/origins, and that this is why it is no longer used in the US.

I can believe this to an extent, because what is considered acceptable in British English is different from US English — to take an appropriate example, the term “Oriental” is considered racist in the US, but not in the UK (in the UK “Asian” is usually used to refer to people from the Indian subcontinent, who make up a far greater proportion of the population over here than in the US, so another term is needed). I try, when writing on the internet where one can expect an international audience, to say “East Asian” on the very rare occasions I need to use a distinguishing term, to avoid needlessly using terms that some would consider racist.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to discover anything to confirm one way or another if the term Chinese Whispers has a racist origin — although it certainly wouldn’t surprise me — so I am loath to use it in future. The problem is, though, that the term is the standard one in British English for a useful concept, and I can’t think of a sensible replacement. “Telephone game” would cause confusion to British readers, and I’ve also never seen it used colloquially in the same way (which is not to say it isn’t used that way, just that I’ve never seen it).

So does anyone have any suggestions as to what term might be suitable in its place?

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24 Responses to On the term “Chinese Whispers”

  1. Dave Page says:

    A UK person would probably understand “I get really, really annoyed at the two-and-fourpence miscommunication of the so-called ‘progressive’ internet sometimes.” Not sure a US person would.

    To explain, the classic example of “telephone game” in the UK is “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” being transformed into “Send two and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”.

    Similarly, I’ve not heard complaints about the racist connotations of the phrase “Chinese whispers” from anybody who might actually be offended by it, i.e. people of Chinese descent. I’ve only heard it being cited as racist sarcastically, but that might just be the people I hang out with.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Dear Universe,

    Not every single use of any term that refers to a nationality or ethnicity is automatically and necessarily racist.

    • Debi Linton says:

      That’s true: There are exceptions to every rule. But when there’s no reason to explain the association other than “things end up sounding foreign,” AND it’s compounded by a lack of understanding when translated to an international audience, there doesn’t seem any harm in finding an alternative?

      Of course, I teach in US classrooms, so I do understand the term “Telephone,” from experience only. I understand that it doesn’t translate to a British audience all that well.

  3. Iain Coleman says:

    After a quick look at the OED, I am surprised to find that the earliest citation for “Chinese Whispers” is as late as 1964, in which a Guardian article refers to it as a children’s game. The earlier name for the concept, going as far back as 1961, is “Russian scandal”. Quite why Chinese supplanted Russian I can only speculate. It may have something to do with stereotypes of Chinese inscrutability – but those stereotypes go way back to the nineteenth century, so it’s hard to see why it would be Russian then and Chinese more recently.

  4. Quint says:

    I’d go for simply gossip or grapevine, as that’s basically what gossip is, truths and half truths heard from one person to the next, the story changing as it goes.

    Although I have to say I’ve never had anyone before say ‘Chinese Whispers’ had racist connotations, live and learn I guess.

  5. Archie Illington says:

    Literally almost all regional names for translate to “broken telephone” though the Swedish/Norwegian is “whispering game”. I’ve heard “whispers down the lane” which is elegant yet perhaps too uncommon. The French is basically “Arab phone” which probably says a lot.

    As for Oriental not being perceived as racist in the UK, I think that’s no longer 100% the case. It certainly makes me cringe, at the very least, and my friends on both sides of the pond mock it use by newspaper columnists.

  6. How about calling the game Whispers?

    “Oriental” is a bit more complicated here in the United States. It would be exceedingly inappropriate to identify a person as “Oriental.” But my favorite Asian grocery store has the words “Oriental Food and Gifts” as part of its name.

    • plok says:

      Well, I think if one uses “Oriental” in a casual way then one could probably try a bit harder to call a Vietnamese person Vietnamese, a Korean person Korean, a Thai Thai, and so on…mistakes can happen, and can be embarrassing, but it’s no reason to fall back on “Oriental”. I think “East Asian” or “Southeast Asian” is good enough, but “Asian” on its own makes my skin crawl, and I’d use “Oriental” before it because what the hell, it isn’t in itself a slur, it’s just bad when people can’t be bothered to prefer being more specific. Oddly, over here in Vancouver where it’s been “telephone game” my whole life, “Chinese Whispers” sounds pretty harmless since it doesn’t actually connect with real racism, and it’s a more colourful term so I kind of like it…it’s not nearly as lyrical as “whispers down the lane”, though, which I now intend to popularize by using all the time!

      Could do much worse!

  7. lucidfrenzy says:

    Asking partly but not entirely sarcastically…

    …is ‘double Dutch’ supposed to be racist too?

    • Doccy says:

      Back in the Good Old Days (ahem), Holland was one of Britain’s main trading rivals. Mysteriously, at the time this was happening, a number of phrases entered the English language, every single one of them an implied/blatant insult to the Dutch. Such as;
      Dutch Courage (alcohol, because the Dutch have no courage of their own)
      Dutch Mastiff (a pug, because they’re, like, tiny! And mastiffs aren’t! Ahhahahahaha! Aha.)
      Double Dutch (something so incomprehensible it’s TWICE as incomprehensible as Dutch! Goodness.)
      Dutch auction (a ‘reversed’ auction – where prices drop until someone buys, because the Dutch are weird)
      …and many more.

      The sayings are still around, because everyone knows/uses at least one or two of them, but yes, every single one is a leftover from the past, implying that the Dutch are stupid/pathetic/insane/inferior/etc.

      • I have some fish and chips but still need a dish, and all men.

        I assumed that it was something to do with the joke about the Chinese telephone directory, where it’s almost inevitable that sooner or later, you’ll Wing the Wong number. Which is, like, not racist AT ALL.

        There is a much more enjoyable pictorial version of the game, where person A illustrates a meaningful phrase, person B guesses which phrase the picture illustrates, and person C illustrates person B’s guess, and so on round the room. It’s more fun because it deals in concepts rather than sounds so “Commentator’s felt that the Liberal – Conservative Coalition was doomed to failure” becomes “Sadly, the operation to separate the conjoined twins was not a success.”

        Doesn’t there come a point where the racist origins of a term cease to matter, particularly is there is no longer any particular animosity, or (especially) unequal power relations between the countries in question. The English think the French eat funny food and the French think the English eat funny food, so there is very little harm in either side saying “Frog” or “Rostbif”. If I decide that I am going to offer to pay half the bill in a restaurant rather than letting the lady pay (as any gentleman should) then I am not remotely thinking about the East India Company if I call it “going Dutch”. Going Dutch is simply what splitting the bill is called, just like Swiss Roll is what a Swiss Roll is called.

        Do the Chinese ever make jokes about how funny English names sound?

        • lucidfrenzy says:

          Doccy, you are of course completely right in everything you say. I’d imagine that given it’s company even the innocuous-sounding ‘going Dutch’ was originally intended pejoratively, a reference to men not behaving like “real men.”

          But I would ask a variant of Andrew Rilstone’s question. How do those terms, once insults, pan out today? Could a separation arise that wasn’t possible at the time? I mean, ‘Dutch courage’ is pretty much pejorative through and through. But ‘double Dutch’ doesn’t inherently mean much more than “this language is not easily understood by those who do not actually speak it.” I’m not sure it’s inherently bad, even if it originally came from a bad place. ‘Chinese whispers’ would seem to me to work in a similar way.

          In retrospect, I wish I’d chosen ‘all Greek’. Which I’d guess to be more to do with Greek’s distinctiveness even among other Continental languages, its non-Western alphabet and so on. Any trading rivalries between ancient Britain the Alexandrians would have been pretty one-sided, after all.

          But having thought about this more, I wonder if ‘Chinese Whispers’ is a wrong term for the game for another reason! I’m guessing it comes from the ear’s tendency to phonetically translate words into it’s own language, however nonsensically they end up. But in the game it’s an already-native phrase morphs into another one. ‘Telephone game’ describes that more accurately, however weird a phrase it is to English ears.

          • Mike Taylor says:

            This is all getting a bit crazy. Sixty seconds of research is enough to learn that the term Dutch Courage comes from a reference to the specific alcoholic drink Dutch gin, or Jenever, and has nothing to do with and supposed national characteristic of cowardice.

            Come on, people. We don’t need to go looking for racism. Apart from anything else, finding racism in incidental idioms like “Dutch courage”, or indeed “Chinese whispers”, trivialises actual racism.

            • lucidfrenzy says:

              Mike, that’s interesting, and I’ll confess I hadn’t heard that before. But at least in my opinion it just gives a specific context to add to the general one. I don’t think it undermines the notion that ‘Dutch courage’ is a pejorative term. And it doesn’t explain why it’s one among a plethora of such terms, of which Doccy already gave some examples.

              I think part of the problem is that these are archaic terms, relating to a period that’s rather round the corner in our history. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out why anti-German prejudice exists in Britain today, even those of us who don’t agree with it can see where it came from. With anti-Dutch terms it’s more of a stretch.

              Personally, I’m not convinced of the racism of ‘Chinese whispers’, as I’ve said.

  8. jim b. says:

    Thanks for this article. I thought the phrase was ‘Chinese Wiskers’ when I heard it on the Red Dwarf episode. Really!
    I thought it was all politically incorrect as a comment on the Fu Manchu style mustache, so it sort of made sense?? I head it called a ‘telephone game’ in Canada when I was a child, but never thought about why.

  9. Anton B says:

    I suppose it’s down to whether the phrase carries an implied slur. so – ‘Swiss Roll’ and ‘French toast’ are okay as they describe yummy treats whereas ‘Chinese whispers’ or ‘Dutch courage’ assume an inherent fore-knowledge of the supposed ‘wierd’ national characteristic and are by their nature exluding and racist. Of course all nationalities do this but that doesn’t make it okay. (Am I right in thinking that Americans often use ‘English’ as a descriptor for something odd or non-standard? I once read an American describe someone putting an ‘English’ spin on a pool ball). It may also be less offensive, as in the case of ‘English’, if the nationality is percieved as historically aggressive rather than subjugated. It’s important to emphasise here how hurtful unthinking linguistic racism can be. Recently I was personally upset to hear an apparantly quite ordinary couple in conversation describe how ‘Jewish’ they were being in regard to their financial meanness. In England one still hears ‘Scottish’ used in this respect too and ‘Irish’ to mean willfully stupid. Basically my advice to everyone would be to think before using national characteristics to describe behaviour and never assume that everyone agrees with your stereotyping.

    • lucidfrenzy says:

      Reading your comments I realised I would instinctively wince more to hear ‘Jewish’ used as a euphemism for meanness than I would ‘Scottish.’ Which is interesting. Is that my brain unconsciously filtering a whole lot of history in digest format. (‘Highland clearances – bad. Pogroms – worse.’)

      • Holly says:

        Also, white people think racism/pejoratives/stereotypes against other white people is more “okay.” I live in England and practically every English person I know has at some point said something derogatory about Wales and/or Scotland (and the Welsh and Scottish people I know certainly have unfavorable things to say about the English, though since the ones are know are largely people who’ve moved to England, theirs tend to be more specific and not just “all you people are/do/like X”) People say negative things about France and America and other majority-white countries that they would not about a majority-non-white country or group, such as Jewish people.

        • lucidfrenzy says:

          Anti-Americanism seems to me the cherry on the cake there. Rather than see it as just another reactionary notion, people will try to insist it’s a constituent part of progressive opinion. I was against the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and all the rest of it. But there’s an important distinction between being against those specific policies and being anti-American, which a worryingly large amount of people don’t seem to get.

      • Anton B says:

        Yeah that self filtering brain thing is an interesting observation. Almost like there’s a kind of learnt connection/ linear narrative process going on inedependently of conscious thought. Also I’ve noticed the standard response when challenged is for the linguistic racism perpetrator to defend themselves with ‘Of course I didn’t mean YOU.’ Which just compounds the felony with a subtext of ‘we both know you’re not a typical Jew/Chinese/Black’ etc.

    • plok says:

      You can’t play pool very well if you can’t put some English on the ball! Nor pinball neither.

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