In a very real way, the words we use every day can reinforce racist stereotypes, even if that is not our intention. American language is unfortunately packed with phrases that have their origins in racism, and quite a few sayings that are still common have a loaded racist history.
But knowledge is power, and once you know, you can stop using those phrases and intentionally remove racist undertones from your communication.
Here are some common phrases that you might not realize have offensive origins:
Calling someone uppity might seem harmless, but this is a word that has roots in anti-Black sentiment. In the Jim Crow era, this was a word used against Black people who weren’t behaving in a subservient or meek way around white people. To this day, it is commonly directed toward Black people in a way that it is not directed to whites, and when it is, the racist implications are very apparent to people of color.
“The implication is … there’s a certain racial order to the world, and this particular Black man is not adhering to that,” Tina Harris, a University of Georgia professor and interracial communication specialist, told ABC News.
The term paddy wagon may sound like a jocular way to talk about someone getting arrested or taken to the so-called “drunk tank,” but the phrase’s origins are in anti-Irish sentiment. Paddy is a common nickname for Patrick, a traditional Irish name.
“The idea of ‘paddy’ is a police car that comes around to grab up Irish people who are no good drunk criminals, so it deals with a historical stereotype of Irish people as low lives,” John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com, told ABC News.
There’s some dispute over whether the term “paddy wagon” refers to stereotypes about Irish Americans being arrested more frequently or Irish people being police officers. In either case, it’s a phrase that we could easily retire from our lexicon.
“Eeny Meeny Miny Moe”
This traditional children’s chant is often used to help figure out who will be “it” during tag or used to make other playground decisions. But the familiar poem used to contain a racist slur that’s been replaced with the word “tiger.” That lyric about catching a tiger by the toe might be a reference to a punishment white slaveowners used as a weapon of terror. Even with the replaced word, the reality is that these lyrics can still feel offensive. Plus, there are so many other options kids can use for counting games, such as Icka Bicka Soda Cracker, Bubblegum Bubblegum or Skunk in the Barnyard.
“No comments from the peanut gallery,” we might joke, not realizing that the word has racist roots. “Peanut gallery” stems from vaudeville days in which members of the audience would toss peanut shells at the performers and offer animated, vociferous feedback throughout the show. The cheapest seats in the house became associated with the term peanut gallery — seats which were often taken by Black people or people of color. Hence, the term has strong racial undertones, and considering that vaudeville is associated with racist entertainment like minstrel shows and blackface, it’s just time to retire the term.
Have you ever said that you “got gypped” to mean you were tricked or cheated? This phrase is based on racist and anti-immigrant thought. The term “gypsy” has been used in Western culture to describe the Roma people in a derisive way. People of Romani descent have been discriminated against for centuries throughout Europe, and they were targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. People were encouraged to believe that Roma people were not to be trusted and that they were cheats and thieves — hence the use of “gyp” to say we were cheated.
Whether you are talking about “Eskimo kisses” or “Eskimo sandwiches,” you should know that the term “Eskimo” is not the preferred term for many indigenous people of the Arctic region. For the Inuit people, the correct term is Inuit, and the word also describes the Inuit language; the same goes for the Yupik people and their language.
Because the word “Eskimo” was widely used by colonizers, the term has a long history of use with racist undertones. There are several theories about its origins, and a few years ago, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers put forward a new theory, that the word comes from the French term “esquimaux,” which describes a person who nets snowshoes. Adding to the layered history is the fact that some Native Alaskans still use the word “Eskimo,” according to NPR. But if you aren’t an Indigenous person from the Arctic, it’s probably best not to use the word.
“Sold Down The River”
Have you ever heard someone say they were “sold down the river” to refer to a poor business decision or a financial loss? The colloquialism originated out of chattel slavery in the South, where enslaved people who frequently ran away or caused slaveowners trouble were threatened with being sent down the Mississippi River, where Deep South plantation owners had a reputation for being even more brutal in their tactics.
We use the term “grandfathered in” to refer to a person or a business being able to avoid certain restrictions thanks to prior arrangements or contracts signed in the past. But the term stems from a way in which white men tried to prevent Black men from being able to vote, even after the 15th Amendment was passed.
According to this so-called grandfather clause, Black men in the South could only vote if their grandfathers or fathers had the right to vote before 1867, and of course, many did not. It was a sneaky way to keep Black men from enjoying the full rights of citizenship in America.