11 Racist And Offensive Phrases That People Still Use All The Time
A 17-year-old African American civil rights activist is attacked by police dogs during a demonstration in Birmingham, Ala., May 3, 1963.
As language evolves, we sometimes forget the offensive origins of certain words and phrases.
Or we never knew them in the first place.
Many of them began in racist, sexist, or generally distasteful situations.
Let’s abolish these 12 examples in everyday conversation.
1. “The itis”
More commonly known now as a “food coma,” this phrase directly alludes to the stereotype of laziness associated with African-Americans. It stems from a longer (and incredibly offensive) version — ni****itis.
Modern vernacular dropped the racial slur, leaving a faux-scientific diagnosis for the tired feeling you get after eating way too much food.
We recommend using the technical term instead: postprandial somnolence.
A couple years ago, Rush Limbaugh pontificated that a NASCAR audience booed Michelle Obama because she exhibited “uppity-ism.” Glenn Beck even defended him, citing the First Lady’s love of arugula.
During segregation, Southerners used “uppity” to describe blacks who didn’t know their socioeconomic place. Originally, the term started within the black community, but the racists adopted it pretty quickly.
This phrase intends to reference hecklers or critics, usually ill-informed ones. In reality, the “peanut gallery” names a section in theaters, usually the cheapest and worst, where many black people sat during the era of Vaudeville.
“Gyp” or “gip” most likely evolved as a shortened version of “gypsy” — more correctly known as the Romani, an ethnic group now mostly in Europe and America. The Romani typically traveled a lot and made their money by selling goods. Business disputes naturally arose, and the masses started thinking of Romani as swindlers.
Today, “gyp” has become synonymous with cheating someone.
5. “Paddy wagons”
In modern slang, “paddy wagon” means a police car.
“Paddy” originated in the late 1700s as a shortened form of “Patrick,” and then later a pejorative term for any Irishman. “Wagon” naturally refers to a vehicle. “Paddy wagon” either stemmed from the large number of Irish police officers or the perception that rowdy, drunken Irishmen constantly ended up in the back of police cars.
Neither are particularly nice.
When you call someone a “bugger,” you’re accusing them of being a Bulgarian sodomite. The term stemmed from the Bogomils, who led a religious sect during the Middle Ages called “Bulgarus.” Through various languages, the term morphed into “bugger.”
Many considered the Bogomils heretical and thus, said they approached sex in an “inverse way.” In Hungarian, a related word still means a slur for homosexual men.
This phrase started appearing in London newspaper around 1898. The Oxford Online Dictionary speculates it evolved from the fictional surname, “Houlihan,” included in a popular pub song about a rowdy Irish family.
Other sources, like Clarence Rook’s book, “The Hooligan Nights,” claim that Patrick Houlihan actually existed. He was a bouncer and a thief in Ireland.
Whatever the case, somewhere an Irish family landed a bad rap. Most notably, the term evolved into “football hooliganism,” destructive behavior from European football (but really, soccer) fans, many of them Irish.
“Eskimo” comes from the same Danish word borrowed from Algonquin “ashkimeq,” which literally means “eaters of raw meat.” Other etymological research suggests it could mean “snowshoe-netter” too.
Either way, when we refer to an entire group of people by their perceived behaviors, we trivialize their existence and culture. Let’s start using the proper terms, like Inuit.
9. “Sold down the river”
Today, if someone “sells you down the river,” he or she betrays or cheats you. But the phrase has a much darker and more literal meaning.
During slavery in the U.S., masters in the North often sold their misbehaving slaves, sending them down the Mississippi river to plantations in Mississippi, where conditions were much harsher.
10. “Eenie meenie miney moe”
This phrase comes from a large children’s rhyme:
Eenie, meenie, miney, moe / Catch a tiger by the toe / If he hollers let him go / Eenie, meenie miney, moe
This modern, unoffensive version comes from a similar, older one, where n***er replaces tiger. Rudyard Kipling mentions it as a “counting-out song” (basically a way for kids to eliminate candidates for being “It” in hide-and-seek) in “Land And Sea Tales For Scouts And Guides.”
11. “Hip hip hooray!”
Though steeped in controversy, this first part of this phrase might relate to the Hep Hep Riots — anti-Semitic demonstrations started in Germany in the 19th century. Nazis reportedly cheered “hep hep” as they forced Jews from their homes across Europe.
“Hep” is likely an acronym for “Hierosolyma est perdita” which means “Jerusalem has fallen” in Latin. The Crusaders may have used this as a battle cry, although little proof exists. Or German shepherds or hunters may have used “hep hep” as a traditional command to rally trained dogs.
Just to be safe, avoid the first two words. “Hooray” conveys just as much merriment as the full version and comes from hurrah, a version of huzzah, a “sailor’s shout of exaltation.”
Bonus: “Rule of thumb”
No, this phrase didn’t originate in some misogynistic judge’s chambers. But the idea has permeated etymological discussions so often, we had to debunk it.
For example, The Telegraph reported just this year that Sir Francis Buller ruled in 1886 that a man could beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, which thus created the popular, and sexist, idiom.
But way back in 1998, wordsmith William Safire told a different story in The New York Times. He cites “rule of thumb” as early as 1692 and then again, as an established proverb in 1721.
Buller did, however, make a similar comment much later in history. Someone should have knocked some sense into him — preferably with a stick much wider than a thumb.