If there’s anything the last year has shown, it’s that racial tension is still a reality in America.
But sometimes people use racist and offensive phrases without even realising it.
Bigoted sentiments surround these nine terms, though in some cases their original meanings might have evolved.
1. “The itis”
More commonly known now as a “food coma,” this phrase likely stems from a longer (and incredibly offensive) version — ni****itis. The condition alludes to the stereotype of laziness once associated with African-Americans.
Modern vernacular dropped the racial slur, leaving a faux-scientific diagnosis for the tired feeling after eating way too much food.
Try the technical term instead: postprandial somnolence.
Back in 2011, Rush Limbaugh said a NASCAR audience booed Michelle Obama because of “uppityism.” Glenn Beck even defended him, saying the word was simply a synonym for “snobby.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, black people were hanged for acting “uppity” or “insolent” — basically not knowing their place. A quick internet search shows the word often precedes “ni****.”
Originally, the term started within the black community, but racists adopted it pretty quickly.
“Gyp” or “gip” most likely evolved as a shortened version of “gypsy” — an ethic group more correctly known as the Romani, now mostly in Europe. 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.
4. “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” 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.
This phrase started appearing in London newspapers around 1898. The Oxford Online Dictionary speculates it evolved from a fictional surname, “Houligan,” included in popular pub songs, which other sources say might have evolved from Houlihan.
And Clarence Rook’s book, “The Hooligan Nights,” claims that Patrick Houlihan actually existed. He was a bouncer and a thief in Ireland.
The term has evolved into “football hooliganism,” destructive behaviour from European football (but really soccer) fans.
Often a middle-school taunt for someone who gives a gift and promptly wants it back, “Indian-giver” originated from the phrase “Indian gift,” first used by Thomas Hutchinson in his 1765 book, “The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.”
During interactions with Native Americans, he defined the term as a present “for which an equivalent return is expected.” But he and his fellow colonists probably just misunderstood bartering.
By the early 1900s, the phrase began to appear regularly as an idiom.
7. “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 US, masters in the North often sold their misbehaving slaves, sending them down the Mississippi River to plantations further south, where conditions were much harsher.
8. “Eenie meenie miney moe”
This phrase comes from a longer children’s rhyme:
Eenie, meenie, miney, moe / Catch a tiger by the toe / If he hollers let him go / Eenie, meenie miney, moe
The rhyme has many versions, one of the oldest being 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.“
While the rhyme didn’t necessarily originate with a racial slur, it became one of the most popular versions in the early 1900s, especially in the UK, according to the “Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.”
Bonus: “Rule of thumb”
A lot of people wrongly think the phrase “rule of thumb” references an old statute allowing men to beat their wives with a stick no wider than their thumbs.
For example, The Telegraph reported just this year that judge Sir Francis Buller ruled in 1886 that “a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb.” That ruling created
the popular, and sexist, idiom, according to the Telegraph.
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 the ruling later in history. Someone should have knocked some sense into him — preferably with a stick much wider than a thumb.
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