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What’s in a Name? The Jeremy Lin and Dong-Gook Lee Drama

March 5, 2012

As romantic as Juliet’s plea in Romeo and Juliet may seem—”Deny thy father and refuse thy name” in the name of love—I’ve got serious doubts that names can be shaken off so easily. Especially when the names we’re talking about are racial epithets in ESPN.com’s headlines.

There is plenty of meaning to be gotten in a name. Not just our given names and family names (though more on those in a minute), but also the names we give to entire groups of people. I give you Exhibits A and B:

Exhibit A: ESPN.com had 35 minutes of fame for this headline. And then came the media backlash.

Exhibit B: ESPN.com would like you to know that there’s no such thing as too much bad publicity in the space of a week.

Names can seem rather innocuous and objectively descriptive, like Thor Odinson and Loki Laufeyson. But thanks to the human penchant for wordplay, names easily become nicknames. Think about the merciless sixth-grade experiences of someone named Richard, for example. As these headlines show, when names are used as racial epithets, they brim with a long history of discrimination that may be ignored for the sake of a laugh.

Which brings us to the dramas surrounding Jeremy Lin and Dong-Gook Lee. Lin’s fans have gotten quite creative with their signs. (Sometimes adorably so: my favorite is “We <3 U Happy VaLINtine’s Day.”) Some of the wordplay on Jeremy Lin’s name has drawn on a Sixteen Candles‘ Long Duk Dong-type linguistic style, which deserves its own post. In the specific case of ESPN.com’s headline, though, the meaning of “chink” in “chink in the armor” dates back to the 14th century (thanks, OED!). But the derogatory meaning has been around for more than a century, too. I find it hard to believe that someone would think five hundred years of an innocuous meaning would trump one hundred years of a derogatory meaning in a headline about an individual who, not even a hundred years ago, would easily have been lumped into a generic Asian group on the receiving end of the derogatory meaning. This is ignorance at best and racism at worst (and, arguably, the two aren’t mutually exclusive), all brought to you in a single word choice.

But at least ESPN.com writers could differentiate Jeremy Lin’s given and family names. Dong-Gook Lee (whose given and family names I’m deliberately westernizing the order of in case anyone’s wondering what the fuss is about) didn’t have such luck. The headline writer decided to just chop up a hyphenated name—not standard name-shortening practice in any culture, to my knowledge. And, apparently, the internet wasn’t at hand to advise the writer, since the Lee’s Wikipedia entry begins, “This is a Korean name; the family name is Lee.” I don’t think Google has a monopoly on making us stupid. Not-using-Google can have a similar effect.

In short, we have to be careful with how we use others’ names and how we label people as members of groups, whether or not we share a group membership. After all—cue violins—aren’t we all members of the human race?

I’ll close with the words of George Takei, who is more eloquent than I can be:

We are at a tipping point in our society, when an African American can become President and an Asian American man can become a basketball superstar. It is an exciting time, but it brings out the stupid in many. When you see or hear it happen, don’t stand idly by. Say something, challenge them, make a difference.

Oh my, yes.

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