Chinese Auction
Marilyn Rosas
Our organization is sponsoring a Chinese Auction and a donor has offered to make two donations if we can find the origin of the term. We've searched, but without much luck. Does anyone have any ideas?

Thanks, Marilyn

It has a similar construction to "Chinese firedrill," "Indian summer," "Indian corn," or even "Chinese checkers" and came largely from the (predominately caucasian) coal-mining belt in the US. The idea is that anything unfamiliar or a seeming variation on a more familiar thing is jokingly, and somewhat pejoratively, described after another ethnicity. A "Chinese auction" has nothing to do with Chinese culture, and those who first coined the term had little more to do with it, so that this odd variety of the commonly recognized model for an auction was attributed to an alien tradition in a humorous -- and disparaging or belittling -- vein.
Lewis Joplin II
I wouldn't use a phrase like "Chinese auction" even if you are able to determine that the meaning is benign. It sounds like a racial slur to me.

Back to the previous post: I'm not so sure we can lay these phrases at the coal miners' door. Two of my references list "Chinaman's chance" (no chance at all) and "Chinese home run" (one that just makes it over the fence) as coming from California and the West where "...Chinese immigrants were forced to work for little pay in a segregated society, their name came to mean 'cheap' in American slang and formed the basis of a number of expressions..." From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)

Some other chauvinistic phrases: MEXICAN STANDOFF -- We get "Mexican standoff" from the same regional chauvinism that gives us "Dutch treat," etc. Everything south of the border was considered inferior to U.S. stuff. Apparently, having a gunfight was considered a point of pride, so a gunfight where no shots were fired - a Mexican standoff - was inferior and thereby "Mexican." The "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977) calls Dutch treat, etc., examples of "derogatory epithets aimed at neighboring countries." They also list phrases pertaining to Mexico. "...The expression 'Mexican athlete' is used to describe an athlete who goes out for the team but doesn't make it. A 'Mexican promotion' is one in which an employee gets a fancy new title -- but no increase in pay. And a 'Mexican breakfast' consists of a cigarette and a glass of water. So a 'Mexican standoff' is a situation from which nothing at all can be expected." The "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997) says Mexican standoff is "A stalemate, a confrontation that neither side can win. Originally an American cowboy expression describing a gun battle with no clear winner, the words date back to the mid-19th century. It is often used to describe a pitching duel in baseball today."

Frank Pierce
Thanks for your extensive reporting on that subject, Lewis. I agree with everything except your feeling that "Dutch treat" is somehow a perjorative expression.

Having spent time with Netherlanders, I find that it's rather common to dine out together, but being thrifty, they split the bill. I was even told by a Dutch naval officer that they consider it a point of honesty and feel more comfortable that way, particularly if a group of two or three couples dine together frequently.

It's easy to assume that every expression prefaced by a national adjective is belittling until we think of London pride, Yankee ingenuity, German craftsmanship, or the British stiff upper lip.

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