All words originate somewhere, and often, that first meaning changes and adapts as time goes by. Now, when we use these words with their modern meaning, we have no idea where they started or what they meant, even a hundred years ago.
There’s many words out there, used on a daily basis by people, that originally held racist connotations.
Here are nine examples of words you didn’t know where racist:
Originally “gypped,” this word now means to cheat or rip someone off, as in “He gipped me on that car and sold me a lemon.” The root of the word stems from gypsy, a nomadic Romani people from Eastern Europe. They moved frequently and made money by selling goods, whether clothing, spices, or food, and were often considered swindlers.
First documented in the book Uncle Remus in 1880, uppity was a term used by blacks to describe other blacks who didn’t “know” their socioeconomic place. Eventually the word spread to the white community and was used as a racist slur to slander blacks that tried to make a decent living. It has since dropped its racist meaning and now refers to people who act as though they’re better than others.
Hip hip hooray started out innocently enough. A Shepard’s herding cry, “hep hep” was used for hundreds of years in the fields of the German country side. And then came the Nazis. Soon, as Germans ransacked the Jewish ghettos (see below), they started shouting “hep hep” as a rallying cry, encouraging the masses to act out against the Jews.
In Vaudeville theaters in the 19th century, the cheapest section of the theater is where many black people sat. It became known as the peanut gallery because peanuts were a cheap snack and often ate by theater goers. It’s said when the show was bad, patrons would throw their peanuts onto the stage, encouraging the term peanut gallery until it stuck.
During the late 17th century, Patrick became a derogatory word used towards Irishmen. Eventually it morphed into “paddy,” which leads to two different possible origins to the term “paddy wagon.” Many communities had a large number of Irish police, and so some say police cars became known as paddy wagons because so many Irish were cops. The second interpretation is that drunken Irishmen always end up in the back of a police car, and hence, police cars became known as “paddy wagons.”
When you call the kid on a bike “a little bugger,” you’re throwing much more of an insult than you ever intended. Technically, you’re calling that sweet, although sometimes obnoxious, little boy a Bulgarian sodomite. Yep, that’s the origins of bugger. Way back during the Middle Ages, the heads of the Catholic church stated that Bogomils, an Eastern Orthodox religious sect in Bulgaria, were all heretics and therefore approached everything, including sex, in a backwards way. Even today, there’s a Hungarian slur that’s very similar used to describe gay men.
In 1898, the London newspapers were all writing about the Houlihan family, who were Irish immigrants. The papers reported wild stories of the Houlihans and they became known for their loud drinking songs, drunken nature, and police brutality. Whether there truly was an Irish family named Houlihan or if they were made up stories for publicity, is unknown. But the word stuck and, well it doesn’t relate specifically to the Irish, it refers to people who are out causing mischief for fun.
While ghetto is still not necessarily a nice word to use, today it refers more to a socioeconomic status than a racial one and describes the poorest parts of cities. But that’s not how it started. Originally ghetto was a specific area in Venice, Italy, Gheto Island, where the Jewish community was forced to live. This became a common practice during 14th and 15th century Europe, and many of these ghettos had walls and gates, which would be locked during Christian festivals.
The Vandals were a Germanic tribe that wreaked havoc over the Roman Empire during the 3rd through 5th centuries. They conquered Gaul and Spain, and in 455 A.D., attacked Rome. Today, the word refers to someone who willfully destroys something that is not his or hers to destroy. Although we know the Vandals were warriors, they get a bad reputation because scholars believe they didn’t destroy for the sheer purpose of destroying.
Who knew we were using so many racist words without knowing it? But now you do, so think twice before shouting “Hip hip hooray” when you cross the finish line at your next 5K event, especially if you’re running with your Jewish friend. Or talk about how uppity your new, African-American, neighbors are, with their sports cars and luxury SUVs.