Sitting Indian Style. Calling someone a basket case. As much as we'd like to believe every phrase we utter is 100 percent politically correct, it would be 110 percent exhausting to try and figure that out. It’s easier just to use the words we hope convey our message without conveying any sort of racial bias.
However, words have history, and it turns out some of the most popular words and phrases have a history that most people would like to forget. While it's impossible to fact-check every single thing we say, it can't hurt to learn about the offensive origins of some of the things we all say without thinking, and maybe we can catch our tongues from time to time, remembering that words have power.
Today the phrase "gypped" is used when someone wants to complain that they were swindled, cheated, or taken advantage of in some way. But it actually comes from the (already offensive) term “gypsy,” a racial slur referring to the Roma people.
When the Romani moved from India to Europe, they were mistaken for Egyptians because of their dark skin, so they were dubbed “gypsies” and labeled thieves. Thus, the phrase “getting gypped.”
No Can Do
You’ve probably said “no can do” when someone has asked you to give up your last french fry or buy the next round of beers. The seemingly innocent way of telling someone no is based on mean-spirited mockery of how Chinese immigrants talked.
According to the Oxford Dictionary:
"The widespread use of the phrase in English today has obscured its origin: what might seem like folksy, abbreviated version of I can’t do it is actually an imitation of Chinese Pidgin English. The phrase dates from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, an era when Western attitudes towards the Chinese were markedly racist."
While “uppity” is usually used to describe a snob or someone who displays arrogance it's roots are steeped in racism. The phrase was originally used in the south to describe African Americans who didn’t "know their place," often resulting in lynching. As NPR explained:
"Most victims of lynching were political activists, labor organizers or black men and women who violated white expectations of black deference, and were deemed 'uppity' or 'insolent.'"
The Peanut Gallery
Who would suspect something as silly as “Let’s get some comments from the peanut gallery” has such racist origins? The phrase peanut gallery actually refers to the cheap seats in segregated theaters and sporting events in the 1920s where African Americans were required to sit.
And if you’re wondering about the peanut part, that’s because peanuts were introduced to America during the slavery trade and became associated with blacks.