Etymology is the study of the origins of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
Racism is so deeply ingrained in our culture that you may say or hear racially offensive phrases and not even realize it. As you read this article, we invite you to reflect on how racism and oppression have shaped the world we live in today.
- “Grandfather clause”
- “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe”
- “The itis”
- “Cotton pickin’”
- “Sold down the river”
- “Hey, Chief”
- “No can do”
- “Long time no see”
- “The peanut gallery”
- “Indian giver”
“Grandfather clause” and “grandfathered” are terms used to avoid change in expectations when a new set of rules are set in place. Historically, the notion was birthed after a brief period of relatively open voting, with the goal of enfranchising poor White people, while simultaneously stripping Black people of their rights.
Black people in the United States were enslaved prior to the 1860s. The 15th Amendment, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, was ratified by the states in 1870. Black people were then kept from voting in large numbers in Southern states for nearly a century more. During that time, literacy tests, poll taxes, and other tactics were designed to deprive Black people of their constitutional rights. Many poor southern White people were not able to meet such expectations, so seven states passed laws that made men eligible to vote if they had been granted the right to vote before 1867 or were lineal descendants of voters back then. These statutes, implemented in the 1890s and early 1900s, were called “grandfather clauses.”
Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe
“Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe” is a line from a popular children’s rhyme, with meaning rooted in the slave trade. While the song has been modified regionally over time, the common modernized version goes:
“Eenie, meenie, miney, moe.
Catch a tiger by its toe.
If it hollers let it go.
Eenie, meenie, miney, moe …”
In historical references of this song, the word “tiger” is replaced by the N-word. The poem has many versions used in different regions, but the roots consistently make clear references to slavery and discrimination of Black people.
“The Itis” aka a “food coma” is a common phrase to describe the feeling of sleepiness after eating. Terribly, “-itis” originally was used as a suffix to the N-word, alluding to a stereotype of laziness. FYI: The technical term for drowsiness after eating is postprandial somnolence.
“Cotton Pickin’” is a phrase that some people utter when they get mad or frustrated, used in place of “gosh/god dang/damn it”. When we shine the magnifying glass on the objectifying roots of this phrase, the whole American history book sparks on fire. These words were predominantly used to refer to Black people — particularly slaves and sharecroppers — who were forced to pick cotton.
“Uppity” meaning: arrogant, or haughty, first used in the 1880s via “Uncle Remus” stories—a series of songs and folk tales written in slave dialect. By the 1950s, the word was fueled with hostile racial undertones. In 1952, the Oxford dictionary listed the term “uppity (N-word)” with this definition: “Above oneself, self-important, ‘jumped up,’ haughty, pert, putting on airs.” While there is race-neutral usage spanning the dictionary’s history, this seems like a word we can live without.
Gyp or Gip
“Gyp” or “Gip” is a term commonly used to refer to being “cheated” or “ripped off.” This is likely a shortened version of “gypsy”—more accurately known as the Romani, an ethnic group now mostly living in Europe and the Americas. The Romani are known for traveling and making their money selling goods. Business disputes naturally would arise, and the masses started considering all the traveling tribes swindlers.
“Powwow” is a term misappropriated from Indigenous Peoples, when used in place of any regular “get-together” or business meeting. Powwows have long been culturally significant social gatherings for ceremonial and celebratory purposes, conducted under strict protocols.
Sold Down the River
While modern language has coined “sold down the river” to imply being betrayed or cheated, the historical meaning is both dark and literal. Slave owners often sold their “misbehaving” slaves, sending them down the Mississippi river to plantations in Mississippi, with even harsher working conditions.
Using “Hey, Chief” as a salutation or calling any Indigenous person a “Chief” trivializes both the hereditary chief who has power passed down through blood lines, and the elected chief who is chosen by band members.
No Can Do
“No can do” is used to decline an ask. This phrase started in the early 20th century mocking Chinese people. Learning a new language can be very difficult; it’s not uncommon for people to speak simplified versions of the language, known as pidgin languages, in order to help them communicate. Example: “I can’t do it.” > “No can do.”
Long Time No See
Another example of a racially insensitive mockery of a pidgin language is the phrase “long time no see,” which is said when reuniting with someone after a prolonged absence. This has even been modernized to “long time no chat,” or “long time no email.” “Long time no see” originally mimicked an Indigenous People’s greeting, which was used after an extended separation. The current earliest citation comes from W.F. Drannan’s book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains (190o): “When we rode up to him he said: ‘Good mornin. Long time no see you.’”
Some etymological research suggests the word “Eskimo” comes from Algonquin, “ashkimeq,” which literally means “eaters of raw meat,” while other research suggests it could mean “snowshoe-netter.” Regardless of its origins, it trivializes the existence and culture of entire groups of people by referring to their perceived behaviors. A proper term to use instead is Inuit.
The Peanut Gallery
You may hear someone shout for silence from “the peanut gallery,” which in modern day is typically referring to a group of rowdy, heckling folx. During the Vaudeville era (1880s–1930s), the peanut gallery was the section cheapest to sit in and furthest from the stage; the only option for Black and poor attendees. In some places it was referred to as the “N-word gallery”.
They’re on the Warpath
“They’re on the warpath” has been adapted to mean that someone is intent on a confrontation or fight. Historically, the “war path” was a literal “path to war” taken by Indigenous Peoples (who were referred to as “redskins” or savages, in various early citations of this phrase) when traveling to an enemy’s territory to engage in battle.
The words “war path” appear on an Indigenous People’s map from 1775, and twenty years later the phrase, “I often have rode that war path alone” was published in The History of the American Indians (1775). This qualifies it as one of the very earliest American phrases. By 1880, Mark Twain had entirely disassociated the word from Indigenous Peoples’ culture in A Tramp Abroad: “She was on the war path all the evening.”
Merriam Webster defines “Indian giver,” accurately labeled “dated & offensive,” as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back or expects an equivalent in return.” According to Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., “There are … opposing schools of thought about the origin of this derogatory phrase.”
- It could be a historical reference to the US government breaking land treaties with Native Americans.
- It could date back to a culture clash in early contact where the notion of gift-giving had different culturally established rules.
The etymology of the word “thug” dates back to 1810. The word has origins in Sanskrit and Hindi, referring to swindling and deceiving. The word thuggee was used to describe the violent criminal behavior of bands of “thugs” that roamed India in the mid-1800s.
So how did Black people get pigeonholed into this label?
During the wrongful institution of slavery, Black people were depicted as docile and blissfully ignorant. In the 19th century, White actors performed wearing Black makeup to portray Black people as stereotypically foolish and messy. In this way, they used Black people for comedic relief at the expense of Black culture. Popular media portrayed Black people as content with their place in society. Gone with the Wind depicts content slaves, specifically “Mammy,” who even fends off freedmen. (The role was played by Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal.) The Disney film Song of the South depicts Uncle Remus as an elderly Black freedman who is satisfied with his place in society, singing the happy song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
These depictions of Blackness reflected white America’s desire to control the Black body and mind, creating a notion that enslavement was the only possible condition in society for Black people.
This image of Blackness began to change after the American Civil War. From 1865–1877, newly freed Black people began to obtain social, economic, and political rights with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Growth in Black power challenged White supremacy and created White fear of Black mobility. Thus began the rise of the Jim Crow era, solidified by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson which stated, “separate but equal is constitutional.” White authority in the South gained control over newly freed Black people when Northern troops were pulled out as a result of the Compromise of 1877. Media portrayals of Blacks continued to paint fearful images of brutes setting the ground for continued discrimination.
“Buffoonery” is often associated with amusing but undignified behavior. It has French and Italian origins, meaning clown or jester. This word was used to describe and oppress Black people. It paints a picture of the demeaning ways Black people have been historically depicted.
Were you shocked by any of these? While we are in a globally active state of unlearning and relearning, retiring these oppressive phrases is a step towards a brighter, more inclusive future. If you hear someone saying one of these phrases, kindly inform them of its inappropriate nature by referencing its historical context (or sending them this article). It’s up to us all to break the cycle.
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