8 English Words and Phrases Rooted in Racist Origins

In an era where society is increasingly re-evaluating time-honored practices and beliefs for their impact on minorities, significant changes are being made as a result.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that many of our words and phrases fall into this remit, having their origins in problematic contexts.

Here’s a look at some words and phrases whose origins we might prefer to forget. They may seem harmless at first glance until you consider how they may be interpreted from others’ perspectives. 

1. Gypped

Defined by Merriam-Webster as defrauded, swindled, or cheated, the word “gypped” is widely believed to stem from “gypsy.” This was historically a derogative term that was – and still is – most offensive to the Roma culture, originating from Northern India. 

As the Romani people made their way west toward Europe, they were initially mistaken for Egyptians because of their dark skin and features.

“I encounter a lot of people who tell me that they never knew the word ‘gypped’ had anything to do with gypsies, or that it’s offensive — especially when the word is heard not read,” University of Texas at Austin professor Ian Hancock, who was born in Britain to Romani parents, told NPR in 2013

“My response to them is, ‘That’s okay. You didn’t know, but now you do. So stop using it. It may mean nothing to you, but when we hear it, it still hurts.”

2. Off the Reservation

The phrase “off the reservation” is used to describe someone who has gone rogue, defiantly disregarding rules or conventions to make a point or achieve a goal. 

This seems innocent enough, right? Until you consider how a Native American might feel when hearing it.

The phrase can be traced back to the mid-1800s. It served as a means for U.S. government officials to reference Native Americans – specifically those who had ventured outside the boundaries of the reservations they had been forced into by European settlers.

3. Sold Down the River

This is one of the more obvious phrases to avoid. To be “sold down the river” commonly means to be betrayed, but its original usage could not be more clear.

When African-American slaves were bought and sold at riverport markets, such as those located in New Orleans, they were said to have been “sold down the river.” This is a reference to the trips they took down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers on their way to market.

4. Master Bedroom

Sometimes words or phrases begin without any intent of racism, but they take on new meaning over time. As a result of this process, they can be hurtful to people of ethnic minorities today.

This certainly describes the context around the term “master bedroom.” 

The term “master,” of course, was how slave owners were referred to. There’s no evidence that the phrase “master” bedroom’ derives from the slave owner’s bedroom in a home. Nevertheless, the term “master” conjures undeniable imagery of slavery. 

As a result, to err on the side of caution in this era of racial reckoning, a growing number of real estate listing services are instead using terms like “primary bedroom” to describe the largest bedroom in the home.

5. Blackmail, Blacklist, Black Sheep, etc.

Along those same lines, terms like blackmail, blacklist, black sheep, blackball, and more all carry negative connotations. 

These words and phrases didn’t develop with an intentional connection to people with dark skin. Though that may be, many Black people are still offended to see or hear the name of their race persistently associated with negative notions.

In contrast, the color white is typically associated with goodness, cleanliness, and purity.

This issue has sparked heated debate online, particularly over calls for terms like “blacklist” and “whitelist” to be dropped in favor of color-neutral words.

7. Grandfathered In

In the early 20th century, as African-American men were winning the right to vote, seven southern states enacted laws intended to stop them. The new laws required voters to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test.

However, this became a problem for politicians because it also deterred poor white men from voting.

To solve the problem, these southern states enacted additional laws stating that anyone whose grandfather had voted in the past was exempt from the poll tax and literacy test. These individuals were, therefore, “grandfathered in.”

8. Cakewalk

Today, the term “cakewalk” means an endeavor that is so easy that it requires no effort. The word’s historical origin, however, is much heavier. 

In the antebellum South, slaves gathered in enslaved quarters dressed up in formal clothing as white people and mocked how they danced and walked. The couple with the best steps, as judged by the slave owner, won a cake. The idiom “take the cake” also originated from this practice.

One might have thought slave owners would have been angry to see slaves mocking them, but they seem to have missed the point and loved the cakewalk.

After slavery was abolished, the cakewalk became a popular feature of minstrel shows, in which white actors dressed in blackface portrayed slaves as being unable to accurately imitate whites.

9. Eskimo

Inhabitants of Alaska and the Arctic have been known as “Eskimos” since European colonization. Indeed, some Native people still use the term themselves because their languages lack the alternative term “inuk,” which means “person.” 

However, the word “Eskimo” originates from a stereotype and can be traced back to the French word “esquimaux,” meaning one who nets snowshoes.

‘Eskimo’ also is considered derogatory to many Native Alaskans. This is because white colonizers used it to mean “eaters of raw meat,” insinuating that those individuals were uncivilized.

In the racial reckoning that began in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, the maker of Eskimo Pie ice cream bars, announced it was changing the name to “Edy’s Pie.”

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This article has been 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.

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