Like the people who speak them, languages change over time. Most people would be unable to trace the origin of any given word they use. But a handful of sayings that people use every day actually have some pretty ugly roots. Let’s take a look at five common expressions that actually have racist origins. You might want to consider retiring them from your lexicon.
Sold Down the River
Nowadays, to be sold down the river means to be betrayed. But not long ago, enslaved African-Americans actually faced the threat of being sold down the Ohio or Mississippi River, a tragic event that often led to family separation. An 1835 journal entry uses the phrase to describe an enslaved person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.” Indeed, selling someone down the river was worse than betrayal. It often amounted to a death sentence.
Gyp or Gypped
If you ever felt like you paid too much for something, you might accuse the vendor of “gypping” you. But the term actually refers to the Gypsy people, more formally known as the Romani, an ethnic group that mostly live in Europe and the Americas. Historically, the Romani traveled from town to town, selling and trading merchandise. They developed a nasty stereotype of being swindlers, and hence the term “gyp” took shape to describe dishonest selling practices. Using the term is as rude today as it was back then. You’re better off saying you got “cheated” or “played.”
Your grandfather might refer to a police vehicle as a “paddy wagon,” but that phrase has a fraught history. In the late 1700s, the term paddy was used to refer to Irish immigrants, coming from the common Irish name Patrick. The term “paddy wagon” developed in the early twentieth century to refer either to the stereotype that Irish immigrants were drunkards always being hauled off to jail in a police wagon or to the many Irish-Americans serving in police departments. Either way, the term “paddy wagon” refers unflatteringly to the Irish.
Many Americans already know the racist history of the term “uppity,” but some still use it to describe anyone who acts better than other people. In reality, the term “uppity” was used by white slaveholders to refer to enslaved African-Americans who acted above their status. Enslaved people who were deemed “uppity” were often severely punished. During the Jim Crow era, segregationists often used the term against literate Black people who wanted to move up the economic ladder.
Eeny meenie miney moe
Many are aware of the children’s song that goes, “Eeeny meeny miney moe/catch a tiger by the toe…” The song is typically used in a game of tag, or as a way of picking someone out of a group. But the original lyrics to the nursery rhyme reveal a racist history. Instead of the word “tiger,” the song used to include an offensive term for Black people. Hence, the song was originally about slave capturing. It goes to show how even young children can be indoctrinated into a racist system. But it also offers some hope. If we teach our children how to speak and act in an inclusive way, then our future just might be more inclusive.