Language is constantly changing and evolving, words and phrases fall in and out of favor, new terms are created, old phrases start to take on new meanings, etc. But this also means that some of the phrases people use today without thinking twice are actually pretty messed up, and some are horribly racist. They were originally offensive, but since we are a culture of jerks, they became so widespread and so commonplace that even your sweet old grandma uses them now. Does saying them make you a bad person? No, of course not. Like I said, language is always changing and evolving, but at the very least it should make you wonder about some of the things that come out of your mouth, especially if they are one of the following nine common phrases that are actually racist.
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This one seems completely innocent but here’s the truth: the term “peanut gallery” actually originally referred to the special balconies that black people had to sit in at the theater during the days of segregation. They were called “peanut galleries” because the peanut was heavily associated at the time with African-Americans, largely because its usage had been popularized by black scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, a former slave. Therefore, “peanut gallery” became a cheap and derisive way to refer to people whose voices didn’t matter. It would be like if the word “beaner” became acceptable 100 years from now, although to be fair beans and peanuts are both part of a nutritious diet so the joke’s on you, whitey.
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Vandalism by itself has a negative connotation, which is kind of a problem since it's name is taken directly from the ancient Germanic tribe known as the Vandals. The tribe sacked Rome in 455, looting the place and fucking everything up like, well, like vandals. You see? Sure, there aren’t a whole lot of Vandals cruising around these days – as an ethnic unit they essentially disappeared shortly after their looting heyday – but that still doesn’t mean that the word vandalism isn’t almost shockingly racist.
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“Off the reservation” is a term used to indicate that someone is a renegade who’s become potentially dangerous, which seems innocuous until you realize that “off the reservation” was originally used to refer to an Indian who wasn’t all penned up like a zoo animal in a reservation by the government. Put two and two together and you can easily see how the implication is that any Indian who’s “off the reservation” is a dangerous renegade. Somehow, this is all Kevin Costner’s fault. Then again, what isn’t?
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“Sold Down the River” has come to mean betrayal, which is perhaps appropriate when you consider that the phrase originated in Louisville, Kentucky to refer to the black slaves who were quite literally sold down the river to their new masters, which is about as big a betrayal of basic humanity that there is. Can you even imagine being a black dude these days and having someone tell you, “Don’t worry, I won’t sell you down the river,” without a trace of self-awareness? It would be like walking up to an Indian and complaining that he scalped you during a business deal.
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There is some debate about the origin of the term “paddy wagon,” but either way it’s pretty offensive. The first possibility is that since so many cops in America were Irish immigrants named Patrick, their wagons became known as “paddy wagons,” which is a lot like when assholes call lawnmowers “Juan Deere.” The second possibility, which is even more offensive, is that the name was taken because the wagons were originally used to round up the hordes of drunken Irishman marauding through the streets like depraved zombies. Yeah. Like I said, either way, it’s pretty racist. It’s just a good thing the Irish people are notorious for being sober, peace-loving people or they might get pretty pissed off about this.
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No matter how you use bugger – as in “that little bugger” or “the priest buggered that altar boy” – it comes from the same place, which, naturally, is racist as hell because that’s just how we make words apparently. It all started with the Bulgarian Bogomil sect, which was denounced as heretical. Eventually, the word came to mean essentially a dumb peasant in German – which is where the “that little bugger” comes from – and a sodomite in Italian, which is because the Bogomil priests were slandered back in the day as aficionados of the butt sex. The word then spread all around Europe until it became both a mild expletive and a slang term for sodomy. Honestly, they should just teach this stuff on PBS. It would sound a lot less messed up coming from the Cookie Monster or Oscar the Grouch. Or maybe not.
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Most people understand that the term “jewed” is pretty offensive. But “gypped” means exactly the same thing and is as equally offensive, perhaps even more so if only because it used what in itself is a racial slur as its root. To be gypped means to be cheated or ripped off and is taken directly from the belief in Europe that the Romani people – who were labeled “Gypsies” – were sneaky cheats and thieves. What makes it even worse is that “Gypsy” itself is a somewhat controversial term, used to refer to a whole range of people who didn’t conform to society back in the day. So “gypped” is offensive in a way that is complicated and layered like any Christopher Nolan movie that isn’t about Batman. Basically, it is the Inception of racist phrases.
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This one’s pretty straight forward, right? I mean, it basically comes right out and says that Indians are liars who will break their word, which is ironic since the last time I checked they weren’t the ones ignoring treaties and handing out smallpox blankets. And still, it has become so common a phrase thanks to the racism which existed against Indians as almost a given in society until very, very recently, that people still say it without thinking twice about it. Then again, we’re a culture who thinks nothing of slapping a giant red Indian head on a sports team mascot and calling it cool so maybe this isn’t that surprising.
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The next time you hear someone shout this – although, to be honest, who in the hell shouts this outside of a 1950’s TV sitcom these days – just remember that “Hip! Hip! Hooray!” stems from the original “Hep! Hep! Hurrah!” which itself originated because the letters in the word HEP formed an acronym which in Latin spelled out "Hierosolyma Est Perdita" which… drumroll… means “Jerusalem is lost.” Yeah. That in turn was then shouted during German riots by German soldiers when they would kill Jews. Well, okay then. Alternately, it has been explained that “Hep! Hep!” was a rallying cry used by German shepherds to herd their beasts, which sounds innocent until you hear the second part of that story which is that it was then adopted in 1819 by the Germans as they herded and hunted down and then killed Jews. So… yeah, either way, it’s not looking too good. Naturally, the “hooray!” was added because I guess people needed to further express their enjoyment in killing Jews. It’s a good thing that Germany has a good track record of dealing with the Jewish people or else this might be a little awkward.
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