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Make it through Chinese whispers 道听途说

中国日报网 2022-09-16 14:14


Reader question:

Please explain this sentence: I’m sure my words will not make it through Chinese whispers.

My comments:

I’ve written on this subject before and I don’t mind discussing “Chinese Whispers” again.

Like, any time.

Anyways, here, the speaker means to say he or she is sure that their very words will get lost as they are passed from mouth to mouth, i.e. from one person to another and to the next.

He or she has little confidence that people will be able to get their message across accurately. On the contrary, they are pretty certain that in the end, their words and message will be distorted – possibly beyond recognition.

So, perhaps, the speaker should go on television and announce their message themselves.

Or write an email to one and all.

Or go on Webchat and get their message out that way.

These are all better means though which one’s message can make it through successfully, clearly, without being misunderstood or without causing confusion.

By Chinese whispers, however, one’s message will almost certainly get lost.

Chinese whispers, you see, originally refers to the game of message passing among a group of people. It’s an easy game. One starts by whispering a message to the person next to you, making sure that other people won’t overhear it. Then the person who hears the message retells it to another person through the same method – whispering, speaking to the other person’s ear in a low voice. On and on, it goes.

The end of the game is reached when all the persons get told the message, at which point the person who hears it last announces, loud and clear, what he or she has heard.

Rest assured what they say they have heard is very different from, if not entirely contrary to the original message in meaning.

And therein lies the fun of the game Chinese Whispers.

Why Chinese Whispers, you ask.

There’s no a definitive answer to that, although if the phrase sounds racist to you, I won’t blame you. It probably has something to do with the fact that the Chinese don’t speak English very well and the fact that the Chinese language itself sounds Greek to the British. Here’s an explanation as to the phrase’s origin by The Phrase Finder (Phrases.org.uk):

The name ‘Chinese Whispers’ was adopted for the game in the UK in the mid 20th century, prior to that it was known as ‘Russian Scandal’ or ‘Russian Gossip’. The reason for the change isn’t clear. It is sometimes suggested that the phrase is a racial slur and is intended to convey the idea that the Chinese talk nonsense. I see no reason to assume that. The English aren't especially badly disposed towards the Chinese – there are many other races on the UK hit list above the Chinese. I think the decision by whoever coined the phrase had more to do with the Chinese language being more incomprehensible to English ears than Russian. If there is any racial stereotyping inherent in the phrase it may be by an association with the idea that the Chinese are inscrutable.

The first citation of the name in print is found in the English newspaper The Guardian, March 1964:

The children’s game of ‘Chinese whispers’... in which whispered messages were passed around the room and the version which came back to the starting point bore no relation to the original message.

Okay and all right, here are two examples culled from the Internet:

1. Enter the phrase “Chinese fire drill” into YouTube and you’ll find page upon page of videos of a classic car prank that’s been popular since the 1960s.

For the uninitiated, a “Chinese fire drill” can be described as a form of vehicular musical chairs. Here's how it works: A car full of people, usually teenagers, stops at a red light. Everyone then gets out and runs around the car until just before the light changes back to green, with all participants jumping inside the closest door. Anyone who fails to get back into the car is left behind as the rest zoom off. One of the most famous pop culture references to the game appears in the opening of the early seasons of the classic 1970s sitcom Happy Days, in which Richie Cunningham and friends can be seen racing around his car, holding up traffic in the process.

As car culture reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s, the expression “Chinese fire drill” developed two meanings. The first was the aforementioned prank. The second was a reference to a traffic accident that a December 1962 issue of American Speech described as “an accident scene of great confusion, such as a school-bus or cattle-truck upset.”

But the question remains: What exactly is “Chinese” about either of these definitions? While a 1996 post on the Random House Word of the Day blog states that “Chinese here is not necessarily a racial sentiment,” it’s hard to see how that’s true. Starting around World War I, the descriptor “Chinese” began to be frequently added to phrases to describe situations that were confusing, incomprehensible and messy.

These included a “Chinese ace,” which referred to an incompetent pilot; “Chinese national anthem,” to describe an explosion; and “Chinese landing,” which was used by pilots to refer to bumpy, dangerous touchdowns because the aircraft had “one wing low” (a cringeworthy joke about what Asian languages sound like that should sound a bit familiar). Interestingly, Chinese landing and the one wing low pun were both so entrenched in military lingo that they were included in the 1944 edition of The Official Guide To The Army Air Forces.

Note how all of the above phrases refer to things that are negative and inferior in some way. It’s also important to remember that anti-Asian sentiments had existed in the United States for decades before World War I and that the United States government did everything it could to keep Chinese and other Asian immigrants off American shores. In fact, the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Usage traces the first pejorative use of “Chinese” to around 1880.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese laborers like the ones who built the Transcontinental Railroad from immigrating to the United States for 10 years, and several other laws that followed were aimed at preventing Chinese people from entering the country. By 1924, these laws had extended to all Asians (a rule that was upheld until the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act).

After the two world wars, “Chinese” continued to be used as a descriptor to indicate things that were hasty, cheap or amateur. The late New York Times columnist William Safire noted in his book I Stand Corrected that in the 1940s and ’50s “Chinese home runs” referred to home runs that were either high pop-ups or ones that exited the park just along the foul line. And schoolchildren used to play “Chinese whispers” instead of the game Telephone because the messages would quickly become garbled and lost along the way.

The phrase “Chinese fire drill” became popular once again with the military during the Vietnam War. In fact, several books written by former soldiers after the war used the phrase in their titles or descriptions of combat. In his 1967 book The New Legions, which was sharply critical of the war, Donald Duncan quotes a fellow soldier as saying, “It must have looked like a Chinese Fire Drill back on the river as the shooting started.” A veteran quoted in Craig Howes’ Voices of the Vietnam POWs also used the phrase while describing a particularly chaotic battle in August 1964. And the mystery writer Michael Wolfe titled his 1986 thriller about Vietnam-era POWs The Chinese Fire Drill.

Aside from the occasional reference to the car prank, the phrase “Chinese fire drill” has mostly faded from everyday use today. Perhaps it is time to rename the 1960s-era prank?

- What’s So ‘Chinese’ About A Chinese Fire Drill? NPR.org, October 31, 2013.

2. Kit Harington has discovered that his grandfather was a World War II spy who may have inspired the character of James Bond.

As if that legacy wasn’t enough, the Game of Thrones star also found out that his grandfather was part of a controversial and top secret plot which involved keeping tabs on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Having never met his grandfather, Kit, 35, learnt about his family history during an appearance on Channel 4’s My Grandparents’ War, which sees celebrities retrace their grandparents’ experiences during the second world war.

Kit’s grandfather, who was tasked with keeping an eye on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in case the former king passed any information to the Nazis, was also colleagues with James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

Having been recruited by naval intelligence in 1941 and sent to Jamaica, he met the British author and journalist who created the world’s most famous fictional spy in 1952, with the first 007 novel Casino Royale.

Speaking about his grandfather John’s history as a spy, Kit revealed it was ‘fascinating’ to discover that he was a descendant of the man who was in charge of one of the most controversial spying operations of the time.

John was also the 22-time great-grandson of King Edward III, meaning Kit found out about his royal lineage too.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Kit admitted he had heard ‘rumours’ before about his grandfather’s spying missions, but didn’t know the whole truth, nor did his own dad, Sir David Richard Harington.

‘We couldn’t find out huge details about it, but we know he was spying on them,’ he shared.

‘I said I think it’s really worth looking into my father’s parents, because I’ve heard some rumours, some… Chinese whispers… about what they’d been involved with.’

Meanwhile, Kit’s grandmother worked as a codebreaker in Bermuda, uncovering any coded messages from Nazi spies.

Kit was shocked to hear these stories unravel, having never heard about those years from his own grandparents.

The star also discussed the generational trauma he feels as though he has inherited, as his maternal grandfather was left with survivor’s guilt and trauma after his role as an officer in the Royal Artillery fighting in the Battle of Monte Cassino in Southern Italy in 1944.

‘My grandparents’ generation were very closed off, I think we’re much better off being able to discuss those conflicts and discuss those feelings – it stops them getting bottled up and harming us,’ he added to the publication.

- Kit Harington discovers his grandfather was a World War II spy who may have inspired James Bond, Metro.co.uk, September 15, 2022.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣   编辑:丹妮)


Edge of your seat? 兴奋得坐不住


Unequal to the task 不能胜任


Here to stay? 留在这里


Blue blood? 贵族血统


Dry run? 排练


On the bounce? 接连

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