These last few months have been a wake-up call for white people about the pervasiveness of our society’s structural racism. (I say “for white people” because for Black people and other people of color, this is not news.) There is a lot to think about in terms of how even—or perhaps especially—those of us white folks who consider ourselves to be progressive and nonracist can help dismantle barriers that may have been invisible to us. It’s not enough not be racist. We need to become actively antiracist.
Today, as part of my own journey toward becoming antiracist, I’m going to share some commonly used words or phrases that have racist origins or connotations. No, not the obvious words (the N-word, “uppity,” or the like) that no self-respecting liberal would ever dream of uttering. But there are numerous words and phrases in English that turn out to have deeply racist roots, or that have developed racist connotations over the years. I discuss a few of them here. Some of them I’ve long known, and some I have just learned about recently.
When a word or phrase may not have had a racist origin but has taken on racist undertones through usage over the years, I think white people have to follow the lead of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color): if they say the word is racist and hurtful, we must take them at their word.
Please feel free to let me know of other troublesome words or phrases I may have missed by leaving a comment.
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Articulate. The word itself is not racist. But using it to describe a well-spoken Black person is racist. It implies surprise at the fact. Just don’t say it.
Blackball, blacklist, black magic, blackmail, black mark, etc. All of these terms racialize the use of “black” to describe things that are bad or wrong. They reinforce the notion that black=bad and white=good.
Cakewalk. This term refers to something that is an easy victory, but it originated as a dance that enslaved Black people performed on plantations, where owners would hold contests in which slaves would compete for a cake. The dance, and the phrase, was later popularized through minstrel shows
Cat got your tongue? American slave owners often used a whip called a “cat-o’-nine-tails” to flog victims. The pain was so intense that those on the receiving end couldn’t even speak. Asking the victim “cat got your tongue?” was thus an especially cruel taunt.
Eskimo. European settlers in North America used this word—thought to come from the French word esquimaux (referring to a person who makes the nets for snowshoes)—for the indigenous people living in the Arctic region, who mostly called themselves Inuit. Many colonists used it in the mistaken belief that it meant “eater of raw meat,” connoting barbarism and violence, which means it was deliberately meant to be offensive.
Fuzzy wuzzy. This was originally a term used by British colonial soldiers in the 1800s to refer to members of an East African tribe, and later became a derogatory way to refer to African people’s hair texture.
Gyp or jip. To be “gypped” is to be shortchanged or swindled. But the word comes from “gypsy,” which itself is an offensive term referring to the Romani people, who face widespread discrimination across Europe.
Grandfather clause or grandfathered in: According to a decision recently published by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, “‘grandfather clause’ originally referred to provisions adopted by some states after the Civil War in an effort to disenfranchise African American voters by requiring voters to pass literacy tests or meet other significant qualifications, while exempting from such requirements those who were descendants of men who were eligible to vote before 1867.” I can’t believe I didn’t know this before.
Long time no see. This is a common phrase in American English—I’ve used it myself when meeting up with someone I haven’t seen in a long time—but it may have originated as a way to mimic Chinese or Native American speech patterns in English.
Lynch mob. The literal meaning is fairly obvious, but when not used literally this term can be offensive when used to describe situations that fall far short of the murderous, racist violence that lynch mobs actually perpetrated. Think, for example, of Clarence Thomas describing the congressional hearing in which Anita Hill testified about how he had sexually harassed her as a “high-tech lynching,” or Donald Trump likening his impeachment to a “lynching.”
Master bedroom/bathroom, master/slave. While it’s not clear whether the owner’s bedroom in southern plantations during the slavery era was called a master bedroom, the real estate industry is gradually retiring the term, using the word “primary” instead. Similarly, many tech engineers in computer technology, who have used “master/slave” terminology to describe software and hardware components where one process or device controls another, are now replacing that with “primary/replica.”
Mumbo jumbo. Typically used to suggest that someone is talking nonsense, this derives from contempt for the religious rituals that enslaved Africans brought with them to America—in the Mandinka language, Maamajomboo describes a masked dancer in a religious ceremony. (Note, too, that Little Black Sambo’s parents were named Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo.)
Nitty gritty. This phrase may have its origin in the slave trade, referring to the detritus found in the bottom of slave ships once the enslaved people had been removed from the hold. “Nit” may refer to the parasitic insect of the same name that would likely have been abundant in the abhorrent conditions in the ships making their way across the Middle Passage. Grits, of course, are the inexpensive, coarse-ground grains that were used to feed enslaved people.
No can do. Meaning “I can’t do that,” this is a 19th-century phrase that mocked Chinese immigrants’ speech patterns in English.
Off the reservation. Commonly used to describe someone who is deviating from the norm, this phrase originally referred to Native Americans who refused to accept the limitations on their mobility caused by the creation of reservations where the government forcibly moved them. Historically, Native Americans who were found “off the reservation” were often killed.
Paddy wagon. This was 19th-century slang for the horse-drawn vans police used to round up drunk Irish immigrants. I hadn’t heard this phrase for a long time, until Donald Trump used it when he was exhorting police to be rough when throwing “thugs” into the back of a “paddy wagon.” (See also thug below.)
Peanut gallery. In the days of vaudeville, cheap seats—in the back of a theater, or on a balcony—were called the “peanut gallery.” These were the seats where Black patrons were forced to sit.
Picnic. Some have contended that the word “picnic” has racist origins, but the story is a bit more nuanced. Folk etymology suggests that the word comes from “pick-a-nig,” referring to racist lynchings where a Black person was randomly “picked” and hanged for the entertainment of whites. However, etymologically the word is much older and derives from the French pique-nique, referring to a social gathering where each attendee brings food (from the verb piquer, “to sting” or “to bite,” which may have referred to a leisurely style of eating). Nonetheless, the fact that African Americans were often lynched in settings that were picnic-like, for the entertainment of white people, means that the word “picnic” carries racist connotations for many Black folks in the United States.
Sold down the river. Referring to some kind of devastating betrayal, the origin of this term was literal, not metaphorical. It was commonly known during the slavery era that conditions for enslaved people were increasingly brutal the farther south one went down along the Mississippi River. Thus a person who was “sold down the river” was being sold into inhumane, brutal conditions that often ended in death.
Thug. The word itself—meaning a violent criminal—may not be inherently racist. It comes from a Hindi word, thuggee, derived from ṭhag (ठग), which means deceiver, thief or swindler. (Thugs were professional thieves and assassins who operated in India from the 14th through the 19th centuries.) However, given how the word is now being used by right-wing media and politicians to describe just about every Black victim of racist violence, let’s assume it is being used as a substitute for the N-word, and never use it to refer to any person of color.
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Scottie Andrew and Harmeet Kaur, “Everyday words and phrases that have racist origins,” CNN (July 7, 2020).
“Blacks, Picnics and Lynchings,” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (Jan. 2004).
Olivia Eubanks, “Here are some commonly used terms that actually have racist origins,” ABC News (July 30, 2020).
Megan Garber, “The History of ‘Thug’: The surprisingly ancient and global etymology of a racially charged epithet,” The Atlantic (April 28, 2015).
Rebecca Hersher, “Why You Probably Shouldn’t Say ‘Eskimo’,” NPR (Apr. 24, 2016).
Alex Nelson, “These 8 common words and phrases have connotations you might not know about,” Pendle Today (July 6, 2020).
Azi Paybarah, “Massachusetts Court Won’t Use Term ‘Grandfathering,’ Citing Its Racist Origins,” New York Times (Aug. 3, 2020).
Brittany Wong, “12 Common Words and Phrases With Racist Origins or Connotations,” Huffington Post (July 8, 2020).