Chinese water torture

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Dec 8 12:38:21 UTC 2000


At 6:35 PM -0500 12/8/00, EdZotti at AOL.COM wrote:
>I'm researching the expression "Chinese water torture" for a newspaper
>column. I have found some discussion of "Chinese fire drill" on ADS-L and
>also at http://www.word-detective.com/back-x.html#chinese. Morris quotes Hugh
>Rawson as saying,
>
><<"the use of the modifier "Chinese" in the derogatory sense of "confused,
>disorganized or inferior" dates back to the time of World War I and was
>largely a British invention. Other "Chinese" slurs of the day included
>"Chinese ace" (an inept aviator), "Chinese national anthem" (an explosion)
>and "Chinese puzzle" (one with no solution)."Chinese fire drill" seems to be
>one of the few (fortunately) of these phrases that have survived in popular
>usage. >>
>
>However, nothing about "Chinese water torture" (which of course does not have
>the implication of confused, disorganized or inferior). I have asked several
>native Chinese speakers and "Chinese water torture" is unknown to them. So I
>put the question before the house. Does anyone have any knowledge of the
>origin of this term, or for that matter of the practice called by that name,
>that is, torture by having water dripped on you slowly?

If anyone was thinking of checking in RHHDAS, don't bother.  (I
suppose it's not really a slang term at that.)  But that source does
contain a number of other pejorative ("usually considered offensive")
'Chinese X' items not mentioned above, including the Chinese home run
(a cheap homer, one which just barely makes it into the stands--I
recall Dusty Rhodes's game-winner in Game 1 of the 1954 world series
as being so labelled), the Chinese basket (one that makes it through
the hoop from the underside, and that consequently--unlike the
Chinese homer--doesn't count if it's detected),  the Chinese landing
(after the mythical Chinese ace pilot, "One Wing Low"), the somewhat
different Chinese tobacco (= opium), and the rather intriguing
Chinese gangway, in which one ship is brought alongside another bow
to stern so that the two vessels are "moored soixante-neuf style", as
one cite elegantly puts it.

larry
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