Common Words With Nasty Pasts

Dark Past

Seemingly harmless words can be particularly nasty when considering their sociological context. In some cases, the following insults or phrases were used to demean and subjugate minority groups throughout history. It’s our responsibility to break the cycle! Take a gander at this list of outdated words that you should reconsider using in polite conversation.

Hysterical

We’re starting off with a word originally used against one of the most-disparaged groups in history: women.

For thousands of years, the concept of hysteria was used to shame and subordinate women. In the 1800s a French doctor used his “research” on hysteria as a way to bring audiences to his lab to watch scantily clad women writhe and moan in orgasmic fits.

Need we go on? This word has insane baggage. Everyone needs a good laugh now and then, but remember hysterical was originally no laughing matter.

Bugger

In the Middle Ages, bugger was an offensive term for a Bulgarian, or a person of Eastern European descent. The word was first used to mean “heretic” by Roman Christians prejudiced against Eastern Orthodox Christians. By the 1700s, buggery was cropping up in English dictionaries as “sodomy, or sin against nature.”

Now bugger is used in British slang for someone or something that’s despicable. But in a weird twist, it’s also used affectionately, too. Just be careful who you say it to.

Ghetto

The origins of this word are messy, largely due to its association with racism and segregation throughout history.

The word might originate from the Italian borghetto, “little town.” Starting in the 1600s in Venice, Rome, and other cities in Europe, ghettos were places restricted for Jews. Horribly, grouping Jews together this way made it easier to send them to death camps during the Holocaust in WWII.

Mumbo jumbo

When somebody isn’t making a lot of sense, we lightheartedly say they’re talking mumbo jumbo. But it doesn’t mean “a whole lot of mumbling.” Mumbo jumbo probably comes from the name of a West African god, Maamajomboo. Apparently, the Maamajomboo god was used by men of the tribe to “frighten women into obedience.” Yikes.

Sold down the river

This phrase has long been synonymous with betrayal. Its derivation in the American slave trade speaks volumes about one of the nastiest betrayals against a population ever perpetrated.

The earliest printed record of the phrase is from 1837. An Ohio newspaper wrote of a slave-trader who made $30,000 by speculating in slaves that he sold down the river.

Fuzzy-wuzzy

Shockingly, a term we’ve come to connect with cute, cuddly teddy bears has a hateful history, too. The term was first used in the 1800s by British soldiers on colonizing campaigns in East Africa—they called members of the Hadendoa tribe fuzzy-wuzzies because of their dark skin and curly hair. After that, white people and military groups from Europe and North America used fuzzy-wuzzy to refer to native peoples of Papua New Guinea, Australia, and Sudan.

Hip hip [hooray]

You won’t be cheering after learning that the hip hip (or hep hep) of this celebratory phrase was once shouted by German Anti-Semites.

In 1819, a series of riots against Jews broke out in Germany and then spread to other parts of Europe. Troops had to be called in to protect Jews from being killed. Many Jews fled their homes until things settled down again. The riots were called the Hep Hep Riots because of the rioters’ rallying cries.

Shuck and jive

In the same year as the Hep Hep Riots, black slaves in the US were shucking corn, or removing corn husks from the cob. Apparently, in 1819, shucking also included “the capers associated with husking frolics” like “fooling” and “deceiving.”

Shuck and jive go back at least to the 1870s, associating black people at one time with slavery, lower class farm work, and deceitfulness.

No can do

Most of us think of this phrase as the milder form of “I can’t do it.”

No can do is actually a phrase that mimics Chinese Pidgin English. It traces back to the mid-1800s, during a time when some in the West held aggressively racist attitudes towards Chinese people and their customs.

Peanut gallery

Peanut gallery takes us to the 1890s-vaudeville theatre. The cheapest seats were considered the peanut gallery, so called because it was popular for patrons to throw things like peanuts and shells at the actors if they didn’t like what they saw on stage.

This history has obvious class distinctions, but some note that there are racial implications too, as the cheap seats were often reserved for African Americans.

Uppity

It seems that uppity was originally recorded in a collection of African American folktales known as Uncle Remus stories from the 1880s. Apparently, the term was used by blacks about other blacks they thought were “too self-assertive.”

Problem is, the Uncle Remus stories were recorded by a Southern white journalist writing in a black dialect (he loved Lincoln and Booker T. Washington, but still). At least one news source claims uppity was used by racist whites against blacks who “didn’t know their place.”

Gyp

This slang word for “cheat” or “swindle” also dates to the 1890s. A hundred years before that, gyp was used as university slang for a servant who waited on students.

Many sources agree there’s an association between gyp and Gypsy or Roma people. So, when you complain that someone “gypped you,” you’re basically perpetuating a stereotype that Roma people are swindlers and servants. Not cool.

Paddy wagon

Paddy, a shortened form of the Irish Padraig (Patrick), was a derogatory name for Irish immigrants in the early 1900s. Paddy wagon gets its name from all the Irish-American police officers who patrolled the streets. Whether you were for or against the law, the term was an offense.

The term paddy wagon, or police van isn’t offensive anymore, but it was it was when people were getting gypped or feeling uppity in the peanut gallery (historical uses only!).

Long time no see

Long-time no see was recorded in 1901 by W.F. Drannan, a writer who stood on street corners peddling ‘true accounts’ about life on the plains. In an extract of Drannan’s Thirty-one Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, an American Indian greets him with “Long time no see you.” This was evidently taken up by readers as a humorous aping of Native Americans.

Hun

Ok, we don’t want you to think you’re calling your loved one a bad name when you say hon. That’s a shortened form of honey, which is perfectly sweet.

What isn’t so sweet is that a similar letter-sound combo also traces a completely different, violent line in history. The Huns were an itinerant Asian tribe who destroyed or controlled huge sections of Europe around 400 AD.

Moron

Calling someone a moron today still means essentially the same thing as it did in the early 1900s: the person is “stupid” or “foolish.”

Moron was coined by a psychologist named Henry H. Goddard. This guy? Not a fan of diversity. He was a eugenicist, someone who used pseudo-science to endorse segregation and racism through “selective breeding.” Goddard devised a system at Ellis Island that rejected 80% of immigrants because they were “feeble-minded.”

We’d love to use moron one last time…just to call Goddard the biggest one of all.