Racist Terms to Remove from Your Writing
The heart-wrenching events of the last few weeks and resulting protests and social reflection have launched a collective awakening about racism in the United States.
This article will present common phrases with racist origins that have crept into business discourse. Likely, you are unaware of the origin of these terms -- many were unfamiliar to us as well before studying the phrases' etymology.
Language is an evolving organism that reflects history and culture. Words have the power to disarm racism or arm it. Let’s look at terms we all must eliminate:
Sold Down the River
Today, if someone "sells you down the river" in a business deal, he or she betrays or cheats you. However, the phrase has a much more sinister meaning and literally refers to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
During slavery in the US, slaves would be sold at slave-trading marketplaces and "sold down the river" and transported to the cotton plantations in states further south.
This term originally started in the Black community but was commonly used during segregation to describe Black people who were perceived as not knowing their place.
From Wiktionary, “This term has historically been used in America to describe black people who were considered to be acting above "their place," and is considered by some to have racist connotations when applied to black people and other people of color.”
“We don’t need a shoutout from the peanut gallery.”
This is a term for peripheral hecklers who shout out criticism, which is usually incorrect.
This term has segregated and classist origins. The “peanut gallery” was the back area of Vaudeville theaters, the cheap seats, where Black people were only allowed to sit. Peanuts were the only food served, thrown by rowdy crowds displeased with the show. There is controversy if the term applied specifically to poor Black people or the poor of any race, but in either case, its origins are offensive.
"I was gypped on that deal.”
Gypped means you were cheated on the deal. It originated as a pejorative summary of Gypsies. Today, the term is synonymous with getting swindled.
“Round them up and put them in the paddy wagon.”
Urban Dictionary explains that a paddy wagon is a police wagon used for hauling criminals, often due to the stereotype of Irish (Paddys = Pattys = Patricks) being arrested for public intoxication. It is also due to the high number of Irish men employed as police officers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Oxford Online Dictionary speculates this term evolved from the fictional surname "Houlihan," included in a popular pub song about a rowdy Irish family. It perpetuates the stereotype of rowdy, drunken Irish.
As NPR reports, “The utterance ‘chop-chop’ would also become closely associated with class and race over time, and was almost always said by someone powerful to someone below.” A good example of this can be found in William C. Hunter's 1882 history of life in Canton, or Guangzhou, China, where he notes that "[w]hen a coolie is sent on an errand requiring haste, he is told to go 'chop-chop.'”
No Can Do
Wikipedia says this phrase dates from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, “an era when Western attitudes toward the Chinese were markedly racist.” In the early 20th century, “no can do” and other broken English phrases were a way to ridicule how Chinese immigrants and other ESL people attempted to communicate in English.
Long Time No See
Some say this when they see someone in person, but others use a version of this in digital communications like “long time no email.” The Oxford Dictionary tells us this is adapted from Native American origins. “Long time no see” was originally meant as a humorous interpretation of a Native American greeting, used after a prolonged separation. The current earliest citation comes from W.F. Drannan’s book Thirty-one Years on Plains (1901): “When we rode up to him he said: ‘Good mornin. Long time no see you.'”
Off the Reservation
Now used to describe someone deviating from expectations. “You’re off the reservation right now with this plan.”
As Kee Malesky at NPR explains, the phrase literally referred to Native Americans breaking strict US government rules and leaving their designated reservation land without proper authority. Local authorities would send telegrams with messages stating, "Currently no Indians are off the reservation without authority," or "We've located a band of Indians living off the reservation and plan to arrest them."
The term "welfare queen" was politically coined to paint a picture of a Cadillac-driving welfare queen. The term has lived on as a linguistic stereotype of Black women exploiting welfare programs.
Shuck and Jive
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase shuck and jive refers to:
"The fact that black slaves sang and shouted gleefully during corn-shucking season, and this behavior, along with lying and teasing, became a part of the protective and evasive behavior normally adopted towards white people in 'traditional' race relations."
The term now means to pander or sell out, but its origins are Black people negotiating coercive situations.
Historically, this term referenced a brutal ruffian or assassin. The intonation has taken a much more insidious intonation.
John McWhorter, associate professor of English at Columbia University, recently stated:
“Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn't need to. It most certainly is.”
Words have always reflected culture. If the racist beliefs hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have the phrases. We have racist words in our society precisely because racism exists in our society. There has always been a direct corollary.
Our particular focus now as business writers needs to be on eliminating words that specifically harm the Black community because that community continues to experience heightened violence and discrimination.
Eliminating racist words from our business writing won’t end systemic racism, but it will raise individual awareness as we business writers reflect on the terms we use. It will stop the propagation of painful stereotypes reaffirmed when those words are carelessly used in writing and conversations.
Our words have real power. Let’s use them to lift each other.
About the author
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.