Editor’s note: Please be aware offensive terms are repeated here solely for the purpose of identifying and unpacking them honestly. These terms may upset some readers.
Let’s start with the bad news: Racism is embedded in almost every institution in America, and language is no exception.
The good news? We’re all paying more attention to this, including the Angry Grammarian.
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has raised our national consciousness about the racist systems that our country was built upon. As people march and protest across the country, including in Philadelphia, racism in all forms, including language, is the subject of a long-overdue conversation.
This column has previously examined the deeply racist connotation of the word thug, and yet Donald Trump wasn’t the least bit bashful in his all-caps proclamation that Minneapolis protesters were “THUGS” (in a tweet that Twitter soon hid because it violated the company’s rules against glorifying violence).
But that’s just the beginning. Plenty of other everyday words and phrases have had their racist origins obscured by time. As long as we’re reevaluating racist American foundations, our language shouldn’t escape direct scrutiny. This list is far from comprehensive, but will hopefully serve as a starting point for you to examine your own language.
This term, which refers to the people in the cheapest seats in a theater, was popularized in the vaudeville era. While some have hypothesized that the peanuts referred to the snack of choice for the lowest-income patrons, take a look at its first documented usage in 1867, in a New Orleans Times-Picayune review of a variety show: “It is useless for us to repeat our praises of Johnny Thompson, Billy Reeves, and others of the company, as negro delineators; they ‘out Herod Herod’ and put the darkies in the ‘peanut gallery’ fairly to the blush.”
Kind of ironic, then, that the term was cemented in modern-day Americana via The Howdy Doody Show, which called its onstage audience of kids “the Peanut Gallery,” and was arguably the whitest TV show of the 20th century.
America has an ignoble history of taking ethnic, religious, or racial identifiers and repurposing them as negative actions and attributes. The fact that gyp — which refers to bilking, flimflamming, or bamboozling—is short for gypsy should tell you all you need to know about its offensiveness. Until the late 1980s, it was used more often than any of those three synonyms.
Eenie meenie miney moe
Think you know the second line of this nursery rhyme? If you grab a tiger by the toe, do you really think it’s the tiger who will be hollering? Read your Rudyard Kipling: In his Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, you’ll see that previously, the tiger was a much more hateful word ending in -ger.
No can do
Apologies to Hall and Oates. This innocent-seeming phrase is derived from pidgin English in the 19th century, when Americans said it to mock Chinese immigrants. I can’t go for that, and neither should you.
Can these words and phrases ever shed their racist origins? Language changes constantly, and we should account for the possibility that what was offensive could in time grow innocuous. (The reverse happens as well: NPR’s Code Switch has traced the history of “call a spade a spade,” a phrase that originated in ancient Greece, before anti-black racism existed, but took on racist meanings in the 20th century.)
But before we let any of them out of word purgatory, we need to scrutinize why they mean what they mean, and if we’re truly comfortable with everything those definitions imply. Only then can we be certain whether anyone’s use of a word like thug is intentionally racist or just plain ignorant.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and semantic drift to firstname.lastname@example.org.