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Words matter

Many common terms and phrases are rooted in racist or sexist language

The troubling video of George Floyd’s death under a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis has had a huge impact. Firstly there were prolonged street protests and then the Black Lives Matter campaign took off on social media. Corporate America came on board with companies like Nike, Twitter and Citigroup aligning themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Netflix came out and said: “To be silent is to be complicit. Black Lives Matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.”

And Twitter changed its profile image on the platform to black and added #BlackLivesMatter as a caption.

As a direct follow-on from Black Lives Matter, products such as Uncle Ben’s rice are being renamed because of their racist origins. Aunt Jemima, a well-known brand of syrup, was similarly retired last month as big corporations realised they had been perpetuating a denigration of black people. And it’s not just a transatlantic problem — Golly bars and Eskimo mints are examples of racist monikers closer to home.

As language evolves, it is easy to forget the offensive origins of certain words and phrases. And in fairness, when it comes to the older and more historical terms, can we really be expected to be aware?

But the fact is that common terms and phrases are actually rooted in racist or sexist language. People might not realise that the term ‘uppity’, nowadays used generally to refer to a stuck-up or arrogant person, was commonly used to describe black people. The Atlantic reports that during segregation, racist southerners used ‘uppity’ to describe black people ‘who didn’t know their place’, socioeconomically speaking. Originally, the term started within the black community, but racists quickly adopted it.

According to Business Insider magazine, ‘gyp’ or ‘gip’ likely evolved as a version of gypsy — more correctly known as the Romany, an ethnic group. Romanys typically travelled a lot and made their money by selling stuff. With a wheeler-dealer image, some decided Romany people were swindlers. So today, to ‘gyp’ someone has become synonymous with cheating.

Irish people were once the butt of widespread racist language. In modern slang, ‘Paddy wagon’ means a police car. Paddy originated in the late 1700s as a shortened form of ‘Patrick’ and then later a pejorative term for any Irishman. ‘Wagon’ refers to a car or van. Paddy Wagon either stemmed from the large number of Irish police officers or the perception that rowdy, drunken Irishmen constantly ended up in the back of police cars.

Mind you, the term also lives on with an Irish tour company called, I’m sure innocently, Paddywagon. I’ve got used to seeing them parked at known scenic spots around these parts — and no, I wasn’t aware until now of the pejorative origins of the name.

Another Irish trope is ‘hooligan’. It started to appear in London newspapers around 1898. The Oxford Dictionary speculates it evolved from the fictional surname ‘Houlihan’ included in a popular pub song about a rowdy Irish family.

Other sources, like Clarence Rook’s book The Hooligan Nights, claim that Patrick Houlihan actually existed and that he was a bouncer and a thief in Ireland. Whatever the case, somewhere along the line, an Irish family landed a bad rap.

Today, if someone ‘sells you down the river’, he or she betrays or cheats you. But the phrase has a much darker and more literal meaning. During slavery in the US, masters in the North often sold their ‘misbehaving’ slaves, sending them down the Mississippi River to plantations in Mississippi, where conditions were much harsher.

And who would have thought the term ‘hip-hip hooray’ could have dodgy origins? Though steeped in controversy, some think the first part of this phrase relates to anti-Semitic demonstrations that started in Germany in the 19th Century. Germans used ‘hep-hep’, a German herding call, as they forced Jews from their homes across Europe. But others believe that it didn’t start as a racist phrase, but instead evolved to have racist usage.

So for the next cheering at a birthday or other celebration, it might be best to teach kids to drop the first two words. ‘Hooray’ conveys just as much fun as the full version and comes from ‘hurrah’, derived from ‘huzzah’ — a ‘sailor’s shout of exaltation’.

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