Skip to content

Letters: Slur words evolve over time

A Richmond News reader and Cantonese linguist has an interesting take on the furore over a woman being asked to leave a store for using a certain word
Several people familiar with Cantonese told the Richmond News the word has evolved and isn’t as egregious as it might have been in the past, however, many people still urge caution and sensitivity given the diverse backgrounds of people living in Richmond and Canada. 

Dear Editor,

Re: “Woman asked to leave Richmond store for use of Cantonese ‘slur,’”, Jan. 24; “Chinese slur triggers language debate,” page 15, Feb. 3

It’s interesting to a Cantonese linguist, such as myself, to read this story.

To begin with, I applaud the Richmond News for raising awareness: no one should feel offended and words sometimes do hurt.

I’d like to cite the authority of Professor Robert S. Bauer, whose “ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary” (2021) explains the term in question with descriptive precision: “[F]ormerly a derog. term for white (Caucasian) people in HK, but now even used by HK residents orig. from Western countries in self-reference so it is losing its derog. conn.”

I think it’d benefit the wider community to understand, and hopefully appreciate, that words and phrases do evolve over time.

Usage of a word with the literal meaning of “ghost” or “devil” in reference to a person may be rude, but it can also become a term of jovial self-deprecation (for example, the Gweilo craft beer) or even endearment (somebody in love might call their other half “seoi gwai” literally “bad ghost” or “bad guy”).

In any language, there are usually synonyms of varying shades for the same notion: Caucasian male, white person, white guy and white dude all denote the same basic concept, though with different levels of formality. From the context of the news story, it seemed the speaker had meant to say what would’ve amounted to “white guy.” Was her word choice inappropriate? Could she have been more polite? Maybe. Did she have malicious intent? Maybe not.

What I do take home from this story is that better dialogue between different communities would definitely be useful in avoiding misunderstanding.

Metro Vancouver is blessed to have many Cantonese language programs (including the world-class Cantonese program at UBC). To learn more, sign up for a course! Or reach out to Cantonese speakers — we’d be happy to share our love of the language.

R. Sham