These Common Words Have Offensive Histories

There was hysterical laughter and bunch of mumbo jumbo coming from the peanut gallery. These terms are perfectly harmless and uncontroversial, right? Well, it may surprise you that these words have very complicated and checkered—and sometimes downright discriminatory—pasts.

Now, words evolve. Their meanings shift. But, it's very important to be mindful of words that were originally or historically used in very offensive ways. Here's a list of words with hurtful histories that may have you thinking twice about your word choice.

hysterical

In everyday language, hysterical means "uncontrollably emotional."

But guess who usually gets slapped with that label? Women. What's more, hysterical comes from the Greek word for "womb." It was once believed that hysteria was a disorder only suffered by women—and caused by disturbances in the uterus.

In this light, hysterical is no laughing matter.

bugger

Bugger seems perfectly harmless, right? Wrong.

While many use it informally as an insult (like "jerk") or to refer to any ole doodad, bugger has also been used as a more offensive vulgar term for "sodomy."

Bugger ultimately comes from the Medieval Latin Bulgarus, literally "Bulgarian." Back in the Middle Ages, the Balkans (the peninsula where Bulgaria is located) were associated with heretical sects, such as a group known as the Bogomils, who were alleged to engage in deviant sexual practices.

That makes the history of bugger both xenophobic and homophobic. Keep context in mind when using this word, else you might be told to bugger off.

ghetto

In slang today, some people use ghetto to mean "excellent." Others use it to mean its exact opposite: "inferior." The history of this word, dealing with long-running anti-Semitism in Europe and later racism in the US, will have you think twice about using ghetto. 

Ghetto derives from the Italian ghetto, used starting in the 1500s to refer to a part of Venice where Jews were forced to live. In the late 1800s, ghetto went on to refer to "a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships."

mumbo jumbo

When somebody isn’t making a lot of sense, we might lightheartedly say they’re talking mumbo jumbo. But it may not originally mean “a whole lot of mumbling.”

Mumbo jumbo may comes from the Mandinka (a language spoken in West Africa) word maamajomboo, a masked male dancer who was involved in some arcane rituals.

sold down the river

This phrase has long been synonymous with betrayal. But you should avoid using it: it probably originated as an allusion to selling enslaved people and transporting them down the Mississippi River. The phrase is recorded in the 1800s.

fuzzy-wuzzy

Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bear? No.

Fuzzy-wuzzy was a racist term for Black people (as from Africa, Australia, or Papua New Guinea), stereotyped for their hair texture. The term was used by British soldiers in the 1800s. The offensive term then made its way into a nursery rhyme and a Rudyard Kipling poem.

Today, fuzzy-wuzzy is used as cutesy talk, and meant innocently as a kind of a baby-talk reduplication. But keep in mind that fuzzy-wuzzy, especially used as a noun and not adjective, has a painful, racist past.

Interested in the less complicated origins of other baby-talk? Read about why we use certain babyish words!

peanut gallery

Dating back to the late 1800s, peanut gallery refers "the rearmost and cheapest section of seats in the balcony or the uppermost balcony of a theater." It apparently takes its name from the people who sat there eating peanuts. These people, who were often poorer or Black, became stereotyped as rowdy, giving peanut gallery both classist and racist undertones.

Since the 1800s, peanut gallery has spread as a slang term meaning "source of insignificant criticism."

uppity

Uppity means "haughty" and "snobbish"—putting on airs, being stuck up. But it has a very racist past, used especially to disparage Black people as "not remembering their place as inferior." Given this explicitly racist past, it's wise to put down uppity.

gyp

Another term you will want to scrap is gyp, slang for "to cheat" or "a cheat." It is formed from Gypsy, a usually derogatory term for the Roma, a nomadic people who have been stereotyped as being swindlers.

paddy wagon

Paddy is a pet form of the name Patrick, a name indeed found in Ireland, especially because St. Patrick is the country's patron saint. That's all well and good, but using Paddy as a stand-in for all Irish people? That's not good.

While many love to embrace our Irish heritage, we forget how poorly treated the Irish were, especially by the British and as immigrants to the US.

While its origin is unclear, paddy wagon, for a police van or car, may be connected to a historic stereotype that Irish immigrants were no more than criminals in the US.

long time no see

Long time no see is an informal way of saying, "It's been a while since we've seen each other." While it originates in Chinese Pidgin English (as does the phrase no can do), starting in the late 1800s long time no see was used to mock the English 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, sometimes popularly spelled as hun. That’s a shortened form of honey, which is perfectly sweet term of endearment.

Watch out, however, because Hun also refers to a nomadic Asian tribe who destroyed or controlled huge sections of Europe around a.d. 400 (think Attila the Hun). It was also used as a derogatory term for Germans in World War I and II.

moron

Calling someone a moron is all fun and games, right? Wrong again. While moron can sound like a schoolyard taunt, did you know the term was originally used to classify someone with mild intellectual disabilities? Given this history (and connection to eugenics), it's very offensive and ableist to compare someone you think is acting foolish to a person with a disability.

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