English is constantly evolving, and new words are added to its dictionary at a prodigious rate.
According to LanguageMonitor.com, a new word is created every 98 minutes – that’s almost 15 a day! Though it may not sound like much, that adds up to nearly 5,500 words a year!
Despite the speed at which new words are added, some old words and phrases stick around far beyond the point of usefulness. While the meaning of words can change, there are several English words and phrases that have extremely charged origins that we still use today.
Here are four words and phrases we should finally let go of and why.
Sometimes used to mean “free-spirited” or “unconventional,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, gypsy originated as a racial slur for the Roma people.
Derived from “Egyptian,” based on the mistaken belief that the Roma people came from Egypt, gypsy also meant to describe someone with “darkness of complexion, trickery in trade, arts of cajolery.”
Its etymology, especially when applied to a young woman, insinuated “playful freedom or innocent roguishness of action or manner.”
Similarly, gypped or gyp means to cheat or swindle and is derived from the word gypsy. This was based on the belief that the Roma people were inherently untrustworthy.
Despite occasional claims that the term has evolved, it is still in active use as a slur.
“In certain spiritual traditions or cultures, spirit animal refers to a spirit which helps guide or protect a person on a journey and whose characteristics that person shares or embodies,” according to Dictionary.com.
Since the concept of spirit guides and spirit animals is deeply entwined with Indigenous spirituality, using it as casual slang, or even in all seriousness, is appropriative.
Stripping this important cultural concept of its context and using it jokingly, or without acknowledging the entire concept, is offensive to people of Indigenous cultures.
Defined as “any legal provision that exempts a business, class of persons, etc., from a new government regulation that would affect prior rights and privileges,” grandfather clauses have a very ugly origin.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the phrase originated in laws passed by seven states in the American South between 1895 and 1910, which “enacted educational, property, or tax requirements for voting.”
The grandfather part of this terminology was added because anyone who had the right to vote before 1867, or anyone whose grandfather could vote before 1867, was exempt from the new restrictions.
Because African Americans only gained the right to vote in 1870, this effectively denied them the constitutional right to vote while allowing white voters who didn’t meet the new requirements a ‘free pass’ based on the fact that their families were previously able to vote before the cut-off date.
Though grandfather laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1915, they were still in use until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While the laws are now gone, the term remains in use despite its racially charged history.
These days, savage usually means some variation of brutal, cruel, or uncivilized. From the 16th century, however, this term was typically applied to Indigenous people, particularly Native Americans.
The word was most often used to dehumanize and deride them, implying that Indigenous peoples “lack the civilized qualities that would qualify them to be stewards of their lands, and to justify their removal and replacement.”
“Further, the connotation that savages are capable of or prone to violence has justified retaliatory or preemptive violence against Indigenous people for hundreds of years,” according to Dictionary.com.
While it is tempting to argue that the word has grown and changed, Indigenous educator Douglas Stewart says, “It’s important to understand that for Indigenous people, this word is our N-word.”
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This article was produced by TPR Teaching.
Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.