Friday, April 20, 2007

It's a nice couch, though

Due to a careless Chinese-English translation program, one woman bought a couch that's the color "nigger-brown":
Doris Moore was shocked when her new couch was delivered to her home with a label that used a racial slur to describe the dark brown shade of the upholstery.

The situation was even more alarming for Moore because it was her 7-year-old daughter who pointed out "n----- brown" on the tag.


Kingsoft Corp., a Chinese software company, acknowledged its translation program was at fault and said it was a regrettable error.

"I know this is a very bad word," Huang Luoyi, a product manager for the Beijing-based company's translation software, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

He explained that when the Chinese characters for "dark brown" are typed into an older version of its Chinese-English translation software, the offensive N-word description comes up.

"We got the definition from a Chinese-English dictionary. We've been using the dictionary for 10 years. Maybe the dictionary was updated, but we probably didn’t follow suit," he said.


Huang said Kingsoft has worked to correct the translation error. In the 2007 version, typing "dark brown" in Chinese does not produce the racial slur in English. But if the offensive term is typed in English, the Chinese translation is "dark brown," he said.

I'm also interested that the owner of the store where the woman bought the couch didn't know the meaning of the word.
"It's amazing. I've been here since 1972 and I never knew the meaning of this word," said Vanaik, a native of India.

This was in Canada, though... maybe that's why? I dunno.

Anyways. The Toronto Star not only actually prints the word "nigger" on its website but also has a picture of the couch and the offending label, which I have saved for posterity:

As another article notes, the couch "is beautiful – she and her husband saved up to buy it." That article also describes some of the history of the use of that phrase as a color:
The audience of Lady's Pictorial magazine in London, circa 1914, would have wondered what all the fuss was about. Ads for soft taffeta hats in nigger-black were common then. A 1915 edition of the British Home Chat magazine described cloth as "nigger-brown." Writers D. H. Lawrence and John Dos Passos wrote about nigger-grey and nigger-pink. And as late as 1973 The Times wrote of autumnal colours in a shade that "used to be nigger brown."

The couch bearing the offensive label landed in Brampton last week by way of China, where things like paint and shoes for men are still being sold today with the description.

"Nigger-brown" pigment is available for purchase from the Wenzhou Kunwei Pearly-Lustre Pigment Co., Ltd. Men's shoes from the Nanhai De Xing Leather Shoes Habiliment Co., Ltd., are described this way on its website: "this product is leisure & fashion, Comfortable, beautiful outside Size 39#-46# Color French rose, 'nigger-brown.'"

"If it was used with impunity in the first half of the 20th Century in England, it is possible that it survived in the manufacturing byways of Hong Kong as a kind of imperial excrescence, as a kind of colonial marker," says Jack Chambers, a professor in the University of Toronto department of linguistics.

They also note some other times that colors have caused a stir:
Colours have caused controversy before. Crayola has revised its original colour palette numerous times since launching the popular crayon in 1903, changing "flesh" to "peach," in 1962, and "Indian Red" to "chestnut" in 1999. The name "flesh," was dropped partly in response to the civil rights movement. The company says Indian red was not meant to represent the skin colour of Native Americans, but referred to a reddish-brown pigment found near India.

Prussian Blue was changed to "midnight blue" in 1958, at the request of teachers, according to Crayola's website.

That last one gave me pause.

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