We know the English language is chock-full of words that are racist ― words that are fireable offences in the workplace, words that we’d be rightfully shunned for saying out loud. (For a current example, no one should have to explain why calling the coronavirus the “chink virus” is unacceptable ... and yet, we’ve had to.)
But racism is so deeply ingrained in American society, even some of our seemingly innocuous, everyday language is marred by prejudiced ideas.
“Stories are made up of words, but words are also made up of stories, and not all of those stories are happy ones,” Sadie Ryan, host of the language podcast Accentricity, told HuffPost.
“Our cities are still full of monuments and street names that glorify slavery, and you could easily walk past these every day without knowing or thinking about what they reference,” she said. “Our language is just the same.”
As anti-apartheid and human rights activist Desmond Tutu put it: “Language is very powerful. Language does not describe reality. Language creates the reality that it describes.”
Obviously, calls to end policy brutality and address institutionalised racism are paramount when we talk about righting racial wrongs. Language may seem like a superficial fix. But the fight for a more inclusive, racially aware language is also important. We bear responsibility to study our words and consider how they shape our thoughts and actions, and how they might demean and exclude others.
With that in mind, and with the help of linguists and other language experts, we decided to look at the history of some English words and phrases you may not realise have racist roots or undertones.
Our one rule for inclusion on the list? Members of the minority group they allude to or directly reference must have said they found the terms problematic.
Naturally, there will be those who object and dismiss any list like this as “politically correct” or “going too far” ― woke culture gone amok.
“There’s usually protests that the words are being used without malice and that nobody cares anymore about their hidden origins,” said Tony Thorne, a lexicographer and language consultant at King’s College London. “And it’s true that some of these words are memorable, colourful, and useful parts of our mental furniture and cultural landscape.”
But for those who object, Thorne thinks it’s important to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that “obviously racist, sexist and bigoted and prejudicial epithets (the n-word, the f-word for gay men) were heard all over the Western world.”
In working to be anti-racist with our language, it’s not about being “perfect” ― it’s about being accountable and responding with humility when others object.
“Feminism, LGBT activism and anti-racism have made great progress in outing those terms and shaming their users, but we can go further,” Thorne said. “Telling the fascinating stories of words and tracing their evolution as they morph through different communities and take on different subtleties and senses can be a great corrective.”
Now for the list:
1. “Peanut Gallery”
If second graders start to get chatty in their seats, the teacher might shout, “Quiet in the peanut gallery!” If someone is giving unsolicited advice in the comment section online or heckling in a theater, we might dismiss them as just complaints from the peanut gallery.
It’s a colourful phrase ― and one that journalist Jeremy Helligar pointed out in Reader’s Digest has “the fingerprints of Jim Crow and segregation” all over it.
The “peanut gallery” was once used to refer to people — mostly Black people — who were sitting in the cheap seats in vaudeville theaters and would throw peanuts on stage if they didn’t like a performance rather than throwing tomatoes. (Yes, throwing foodstuff on stage was once a thing. The first noted reference to throwing tomatoes after a bad performance came in an 1883 New York Times article describing actor John Ritchie being pelted with tomatoes and rotten eggs by the audience. “[A] large tomato thrown from the gallery struck him square between the eyes and he fell to the stage floor just as several bad eggs dropped upon his head.” Tough crowd.)
Some hold that “the peanut gallery” is more of a classist disparagement than anything else ― but others say there’s a racist implication.
“The ‘peanut gallery’ was the cheapest and worst part of the theater, and the only option for Black attendees,” the National Urban League said of the phrase in 2018. “No one wanted to sit in the peanut gallery and today, no one wants to hear from the peanut gallery.”
2. “Grandfathered In” or “Grandfather Clause”
If a longtime customer is “grandfathered in,” it means they’re exempt from any new (typically more stringent) requirements or fees a company establishes. (For instance, “I’m grandfathered in to a really sweet Hulu deal from a partnership they did a few months back with Spotify.”) A “grandfather clause” exempts certain people or groups from the requirements of a piece of legislation affecting their rights, privileges or practices.
The phrase has a racially charged history: Its origins go back to post-Civil War attempts to undercut the voting power of newly free Black people by creating strict requirements for new voters, including literacy tests, that did not apply to the descendants of those who voted prior to (usually) 1867. On paper, these rules didn’t discriminate, but in practice, everybody understood how they would work: It was white people, by and large, who were “grandfathered in” to vote.
“Because of the 15th Amendment, you can’t pass laws saying blacks can’t vote, which is what they wanted to do,” Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian, told NPR in 2013. “But the 15th Amendment allowed restrictions that were nonracial. This was pretty prima facie a way to allow whites to vote, and not blacks.”
3. “Gyp,” “Gypped,” “Jip” and “Jipped”
When we feel shortchanged, cheated or swindled, we might say we’re been “gypped” out of something. This one is racist because it’s tied to the term “gypsy,” an offensive term used to refer to the Romani people, who’ve long faced discrimination because of their darker skin and were even enslaved in some parts of Europe.
Sweeping laws against the Romani people were widespread in many European countries. For instance, in Britain, a 1530 law banned Romani people from entering the country and forced those already living there to leave within 16 days.
“Fifteen years later, a meeting of the Holy Roman Empire declared ‘whoever kills a gypsy, will be guilty of no murder,’ leading to a killing spree so severe the empire was forced to issue a caveat that citizens were not allowed to drown women and children,” Kitty Wenham-Ross wrote in Foreign Policy.
If a Black school superintendent says something critical about a certain department’s performance, a white teacher might call the superintendent “uppity” behind her back. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were repeatedly called “uppity” during his administration.
These days, those who use the term to describe Black people will usually claim ignorance of its racial overtones and say they simply meant haughty or elitist, as then-Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland did when he used the word to describe the Obamas in 2008.
But the term is more historically loaded than any of its synonyms, said thandiwe Dee Watts-Jones, a psychologist and social justice advocate who writes about race.
“It’s used to disparage a Black person who does not know his or her place,” she said. “‘Uppity’ is a term used by White people to refer to Black people who have the audacity to think well of themselves, to assert unapologetically an opinion that may be outside a white person’s comfort zone or thinking.”
There are words that don’t necessarily have etymologies that are racist, but they’re used in a racist manner nonetheless. “Articulate” is one of them, said Megan Figueroa, a linguist and co-host of The Vocal Fries podcast about linguistic discrimination. Consider “articulate” the slightly less racist, but still cut-from-the-same-cloth cousin of “uppity.” To call a Black person articulate or “well-spoken” is to suggest that you expect the opposite to be true.
“When a non-Black person says to a Black person, ‘You are so articulate!’ what you are saying is that you are surprised they have a certain set of ‘acceptable’ linguistic skills, and here, ‘acceptable’ equates to ‘sounds white,’” Figueroa said. “This upholds the racist idea that the only way for Black people to be taken seriously is to sound white, when linguistically speaking, both ways of speaking are equally good.”
6. “Spirit Animal”
These days, “spirit animal” is almost a term of endearment, a phrase used colloquially to describe any person or thing the speaker deeply relates to or loves. “Plankton from ‘SpongeBob’ is my spirit animal.” “Rihanna is my spirit animal.”
For many Indigenous people, though, the phrase refers to spirits who “help guide or protect a person on a journey and whose characteristics that person shares or embodies,” per Dictionary.com.
Critics call casual usage of the term by non-Natives cultural appropriation.
“There are terms like ‘spirit animal’ which denote something positive, intimate, universally attractive and don’t seem to denigrate the original owners of the term — but the acid test is not to make that judgment ourselves but to ask, in this case Native Americans, what they think,” Thorne said.
“Nearly always they will say they don’t feel comfortable with the casual cultural appropriation,” he said.
To return to Rihanna, the singer actually provided a great case study in how to learn from misusing a phrase like “spirit animal.” Last year on Instagram, she referred to her choreographer Parris Goebel as her “spirit animal.” A follower promptly called her out: “Please stop using ‘spirit animal’ unless you belong to one of the indigenous groups to which this concept belongs.” Rather than taking offence at being criticised, Rihanna owned up to her mistake and promised to do better.
“You’re so right! It won’t happen again,” she said.
7. “Paddy Wagon”
“Paddy wagon” has been called the last surviving Irish American slur. Indeed, we might have forgotten about it had President Donald Trump not used it a few years back while disparaging another ethnic group: Mexicans.
Speaking at a Republican rally in June 2018, Trump railed against undocumented immigrants and claimed that his administration was rounding up MS-13 gang members, putting them in “paddy wagons” to “get ’em the hell out of our country.”
Irish journalist Dermot McEvoy criticised Trump for using the epithet and gave an overview of its history:
The term “Paddy Wagon” goes back to the 19th century when Irish immigrants, refugees from the Great Famine, flooded the cities of the northeastern US The rowdy, hated Catholic Irish, as the poor frequently do, liked to steal, drink and fight. This behaviour usually caused them to be arrested and carted away in Black Marias. Soon the Marias had a new name—Paddy Wagons!
The history of pejoratives for the Irish is colourful—and racist. There were all kinds of epithets aimed at the Irish.
8. “Long Time No See” and “No Can Do”
If it’s been a minute since you’ve seen a friend, you might say, “Long time no see.” If your mom asks you to get a list of chores done by the end of the day and it’s already 6 p.m., you might playfully answer, “Ha, no can do.”
The history of the phrases isn’t innocent, though. “No can do” originally emerged in the 19th century to mocked Chinese immigrants’ speech patterns in English. (“Pidgin English,” as it was called.)
As for “long time no see,” it’s debated whether the phrase originally mimicked and denigrated Chinese or Native American speech patterns.
9. “Sold Down The River”
The phrase “sold down the river” means to be betrayed to a huge degree. The origin lies in one of the horrors of the American slave system: Those who were “sold down the river” were enslaved people, separated from their families in most cases, and transported via the Mississippi or Ohio river to cotton plantations in states further south.
In his 2010 history “Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild,” journalist Lee Sandlin wrote, “The threat of being ‘sold down the river’ was seen as tantamount to a death sentence.”
10. “Blacklist,” “Blackball,” “Black Mark,” and on and on.
The symbolism of white as positive and black as negative is pervasive in our culture. Watts-Jones has highlighted many terms with negative meanings that reference blackness. In the English language, she wrote in 2004, colour is “related to extortion (blackmail), disrepute (black mark), rejection (blackball), banishment (blacklist), impurity (‘not the driven snow’) and illicitness (black market).”
“The Black power movement brought front and center the way the term ‘black’ is used with rare exception to convey a derogatory, devalued meaning,” she told HuffPost. “The meaning of these phrases is always something undesirable — evil, depression, gloomy, immoral.”
11. “Off The Reservation”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “off the reservation” as a metaphor meaning “to deviate from what is expected or customary; to behave unexpectedly or independently.”
Hillary Clinton was criticised for using it in the run-up to the 2016 election ― and for good reason. The phrase is rooted in the forced relocation of Native Americans. In the 19th century, it referred to Native Americans leaving the reservation land to which they had been confined.
Rob Capriccioso, a citizen of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Indian Country Today, explained why the phrase is so frustrating in a 2014 interview with NPR’s “Code Switch”:
I bristle when I hear the phrase because many of the people who use it nonchalantly have likely never thought about its origin, nor have they probably ever visited a reservation.
It’s not about political correctness, either. It’s about helping the majority realise that there is a minority point of view that holds weight that the majority is giving too little credence. To me, there are indeed many more offensive words involving American Indians than this phrase — including the name of the Washington football team. But I believe it is the common use of phrases like “off the reservation” that allows people to end up being comfortable going further — to the point of using a slur to name a football team that supposedly honours Indians, but not realising that it is actually a slur.
12. “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe”
You’re probably only saying this one if you’re under the age of 8. The nursery rhyme is innocent enough these days: Eeny, meeny, miney, moe. Catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.
But according to Dictionary.com, when kids in the US in the late 1800s chanted it, “the object of the ‘catch’ wasn’t a tiger but a n****.”
As the decades of the 20th century passed, the context of the rhyme began to change and by the 1950s, words like “tiger,” “tinker” and “piggy” replaced the slur.
But it just goes to show: If little kids can phase out racist parts of their language, adults can put a little more effort into their accidentally racist vocabulary today.