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Celestial for Chinese
Posted: 29 October 2012 04:48 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I have just read Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1980, partly-imagined ancestral memoir China Men and she says the Chinese in 19th century America were sometimes called Celestials. I had come across this term before a few years ago but cannot remember where, maybe in the HBO series Deadwood. I took it to refer to their supposed spirituality and Buddhism but this is completely wrong:

Celestial was a term used to describe Chinese emigrants to the United States, Canada and Australia during the 19th century.[1] The term was widely used in the popular mass media of the day.[2][3] The term is from Celestial Empire (Chinese: 天朝; pinyin: Tiāncháo) a traditional name for China.[4]

says wikipedia (which redirected to the general Celestial disambiguation page for some reason in Firefox when I tried to post the link).

Is it unique in being the only ethnic identifier not based on a perceived negative trait? (It isn’t labelled derogatory in online dictionaries.) I can’t see the Chinese objecting to it. How did it reach Australia?

What is the OED’s first citation? I’m guessing a newspaper columnist.

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Posted: 29 October 2012 06:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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"How did it reach Australia? “

Thousands of Americans migrated to Australia in the 19th century, mainly for the gold mining: several of them featured prominently in our political bodies and independence movement. Australian English was influenced by the Americans during that century in several ways.

Having said that, I have no strong clue that this use of “celestial” did not arise in Australia independently, or get transferred from Australia to the USA. Hopefully someone with better access to references will be able to sort that out.

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Posted: 29 October 2012 07:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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First citation in the OED for celestial as a noun meaning a Chinese person is an 1842 entry in the diary of William Dyott, a British army officer.

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Posted: 29 October 2012 09:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Green’s Dictionary of Slang marks it as “US” and has this as a first citation:

1854 Soulé, Gihon & Nisbet Annals of S.F. 378: Those who have mingled familiarly with ‘celestials’ have commonly felt before long an uncontrollable sort of loathing against them.

HDAS, surprisingly, doesn’t include it.

And yes, you probably heard it on Deadwood. It’s used frequently in that series.

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Posted: 30 October 2012 07:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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"Celestial” [noun] = “Chinese” is found at least as early as 1817 in Google Books.

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Posted: 31 October 2012 08:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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"Celestial” as the translation for 天 exhibits something I’ve noticed since spending much time in Hong Kong: the fairly arbitrary use of English synonyms when translating Chinese names. I live just up the road from an MTR station named after a local temple to the goddess of the sea, 天后, but the usual translation for her name is “Heavenly Queen” rather than “Celestial Queen”. (Although the station is normally called ‘Tin Hao’ in English, which is the approximate pronunciation of 天后 in Cantonese ...) Similarly 中国, the usual name for China in China itself, is traditionally translated “Middle Kingdom” in English, but 中 is generally translated “central” and vise versa (Central district in Hong Kong is 中環), so 中国 should “really” be Central Country ...

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Posted: 01 November 2012 05:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Is it unique in being the only ethnic identifier not based on a perceived negative trait? (It isn’t labelled derogatory in online dictionaries.)

No, I don’t think so. How about Kiwi, for example? Plenty are just versions of the official name - Nip, Jap, Canuck, Eyetie, Aussie. And there’s surely nothing inherently negative about subsisting chiefly on roast beef or sauerkraut.

In any case, celestial may not have been derogatory but it was surely ironic; rather as in the Nazi era one might have called Germans ‘supermen’.

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Posted: 01 November 2012 08:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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In any case, celestial may not have been derogatory but it was surely ironic; rather as in the Nazi era one might have called Germans ‘supermen’.

I don’t think the comparison to Nazi Germany works on any level; aside from that, I don’t know about the irony—you seem to be assuming that China was seen as a wretched, failed state (to quote Richard Nixon on America, a “pitiful, helpless giant"), which was certainly the case by the late 19th century, but how far back does that go?  In the 18th century, it was seen as a great land of ancient wisdom.  Considering that “celestial” is attested in 1817 and probably goes back further than that, it seems to me it may originally have been a quite straightforward usage.

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Posted: 01 November 2012 09:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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you seem to be assuming that China was seen as a wretched, failed state

No, I’m not. (After all, Nazi Germany wasn’t seen as that, either.) But there might definitely be a sense of ‘They call themselves what??? Talk about boastful!’

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Posted: 01 November 2012 10:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Oh, I wasn’t getting what kind of irony you were talking about.  Still, I suspect that a couple of centuries ago the epithet would have been seen as simply (and appropriately) exotic.  Irony wasn’t the juggernaut it is now.

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Posted: 01 November 2012 01:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Negativity stems more from use than etymology. Etymologically neutral terms can become negative through use (e. g., Nip, Eyetie, and the mother of all derogatory ethnic terms, nigger.).

I can’t think of an ethnic identifier that started out negative and has become positive, but queer is a non-ethnic one that is etymologically negative and used negatively for decades, but has been quite successfully reclaimed and made positive. (Although I’m certain it’s still used negatively in some quarters, but from where I sit in a university English department, its use is almost exclusively positive and is used freely without anyone raising an eyebrow or objection.)

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Posted: 01 November 2012 02:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I’m with Dave on this one. The term “Jew” does not carry an intrinsic negative load (not to me, or to 15 or so million others like me, at any rate); but all my life I have heard and seen it used, outside my own country, as a stand-alone term of abuse—sometimes (but by no means always) intensified with such adjectives as “dirty”, disbelieving”, “bloody”, etc. In many parts of the so-called civilized world, the epithet “Jew” is still, sadly, used with intent to vilify, not simply to describe.

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Posted: 01 November 2012 07:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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lionello - 01 November 2012 02:04 PM

I’m with Dave on this one. The term “Jew” does not carry an intrinsic negative load (not to me, or to 15 or so million others like me, at any rate); but all my life I have heard and seen it used, outside my own country, as a stand-alone term of abuse—sometimes (but by no means always) intensified with such adjectives as “dirty”, disbelieving”, “bloody”, etc. In many parts of the so-called civilized world, the epithet “Jew” is still, sadly, used with intent to vilify, not simply to describe.

In Greek Scriptures, I’m afraid the Gospel of John is or might be the locus classicus of Jew as epithet. And even this is a profound irony. The writer himself, if we accept the traditional authorship of the gospel, is a Jew and those who were hiding in the upper room “for fear of the Jews” were themselves all Jews. And yet the verbiage seems to be a convenient source for anti-Jewish thought for those who needed that extra push. When I read these passages in my congregation I use the word “Judeans” or “Temple leadership” with which modern Rabbinic Judaism might possibly agree. Still it is filled with difficulties. How to translate Ioudaios? It’s just so easy to interpret it as an epithet especially when one is inclined to do so.

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Posted: 02 November 2012 01:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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"Is it unique in being the only ethnic identifier not based on a perceived negative trait? “

I think it is fair to say Celestial was not _based on_ a perceived negative trait, but it did come to be used mockingly in Australia. There are heaps of ethnic slurs that have neutral, inoffensive origins, so it is certainly not unique.

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Posted: 02 November 2012 07:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Thousands of Americans migrated to Australia in the 19th century, mainly for the gold mining: several of them featured prominently in our political bodies and independence movement. Australian English was influenced by the Americans during that century in several ways.

Presumably this also accounts for various indigenous Australian animals bearing a name derived from Algonquin.  (possum)

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Posted: 03 November 2012 02:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Dame Edna Everage called her audiences “possums”.  OED:

4.Austral. colloq. Used as a mildly depreciative term for a person: a creature. Also as a playful or affectionate mode of address.

Have many other US words found their way into mainstream Australian English?

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