These 11 everyday words and phrases have racist and offensive backgrounds

From the ice cream truck song to words like "peanut gallery" and "freeholder," our language comes with the baggage of history.
everyday words and phrases that have racist background
TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY
By Christopher Cicchiello

Editor's Note: This article references racial slurs and offensive language.

As the Black Lives Matter movement remains in the spotlight after the police killing of George Floyd — most visibly in the Portland, Oregon, protests — activists have been raising awareness on social media about the use of everyday words and phrases that carry offensive histories. Some have been stunned to learn that the seemingly innocent “Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Mo” stems from an original version that swapped out “tiger” for the N-word.

Such discussions have resulted in real change in the United States regarding the language we use. Some realty companies have decided to stop using the term “master bedroom” for its sexist and racist connotations. Other companies including Twitter and JPMorgan dropped the terms "master" and "slave" — referring to a "master" device or processor that controls a subservient "slave" program — from their computer programming languages and code.

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“I think that one of the smallest actions we can do towards creating equity in our time is making our language more equitable,” Kelly Wright, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan who studies how the structure of society affects language use, recently told TODAY by phone. “That is a small action we can do every day —every time we pick up a pencil, we type or we talk to someone. I think the replication or reification, if you want a term of art for that, is absolutely part of what sustains negative ideology.”

However, Wright added that she is on the side of freedom of expression, meaning that no one’s language should be policed — with the exception of hate crimes. And while some of the words in question aren’t used today with any racist or classist intentions, they still come with the baggage of history.

“There's no consensus on do we use a word based on its history or do we use it based on how it’s used now,” Wright said. “And there's very convincing arguments on both sides and it's one of the things that I don't know yet; the jury is still out for me. It's an active debate.”

Here’s a look at some of the most unexpected yet commonly used words and phrases with offensive or racist backgrounds to consider eliminating in daily life in the pursuit of more equitable language.

Freeholder

Most recently, The New York Times reported that New Jersey Gov. Philip D. Murphy renamed the office of freeholder, opting for the replacement word “commissioner.”

New Jersey was the only state to utilize “freeholder” as a title instead of the more commonly used county supervisor position. The term dates back to the state’s 1776 Constitution, an era in which only white male landowners could own land.

“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, let us tear down words born from racism,” Murphy Tweeted out on July 9.

The legislation to change the term was approved on July 20 by the Assembly Judiciary Committee; however, voters will likely elect their first “county commissioner” in 2021.

Peanut Gallery

Wright and others agree that most people are not using the term “peanut gallery” in a racist manner. It is often used in reference to people giving an unprompted opinion: “No comments from the peanut gallery.” The phrase suggests the people’s opinions have little merit or are unintelligent.

The original meaning of “peanut gallery” does not actually refer to a particular race, rather it was the name for the cheapest seats in the upper gallery of a theater during the vaudeville era. These seats almost always belonged to poor Black men and women.

“Perhaps ‘peanut gallery’ has all this other meaning that has nothing to do with race; we never use it that way,” Wright said. “But the thing is, that history, that meaning is still being offered up even if we immediately dismiss it; it's still active in our mind just for a moment.”

Even if the term is not deemed racist, it is accepted as a problematic, classist term in the English lexicon that belittles the people in these less expensive theater seats.

Slave (instead of enslaved person)

As our language evolves, person-first language is gaining greater ground, especially when referring to people with disabilities. Instead of referring to someone as “a blind person,” for example, you’d say “a person who is blind.” The same goes for the term slave, which is not racist in itself since slavery has existed globally, but it gives power back to a given person.

“I have also adopted the ‘enslaved person’ usage and it's weird,” Wright said. “You trip over it when it comes out of your mouth at first because you're so used to saying things another way.”

Ice cream truck song

One of the iconic tunes that ice cream trucks play nationwide to alert neighborhood children of their arrival is a sign of summer for many. But few may have considered the song's origins. Actor Harry C. Browne released the song in March 1916 with Columbia Records under the name “N----- Love A Watermelon, Ha! Ha! Ha!” The song borrows heavy inspiration from the early 19th-century song “Turkey in the Straw.” It hinges on offensive stereotypes, namely that Black people all like watermelon.

After a brief intro, this call-and-response sequence ensues:

Browne: “You n------ quit throwin' them bones and come down and get your ice cream!”

Black men: “Ice Cream?!?”

Browne: “Yes, ice cream! Colored man's ice cream: WATERMELON!”

The song continues in appalling fashion until Browne's chorus:

“N----- love a watermelon ha ha, ha ha!/ N----- love a watermelon ha ha, ha ha!/ For here, they're made with a half a pound of co'l/ There's nothing like a watermelon for a hungry coon.”

Browne was one of many to add new lyrics to “Turkey and the Straw.” Some variations have had silly nonsensical lyrics, while others have mentioned “Zip Coon,” a minstrel show character meant to mock a free Black man attempting to assimilate within high white society. During these shows, the character was played by a white actor in blackface and sought to prove Black people’s intellectual inferiority. The actor would dress in fancy garb and use big words, much to the audience's delight.

A man in blackface strikes a pose in this cabinet photograph from Delaware, Ohio, around 1890.Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

Uppity

Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “above oneself, self-important,” the word “uppity” has a sordid past when used in reference to a Black individual. Originally found in Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” books, the word was used among Black people but became popular among white society intending to demean Black folks. One article on the history of lynchings states that most of the lynchings from 1880 to 1930 were perpetrated against activists, labor organizers and Black men and women who violated white expectations of Black deference, and were deemed “uppity” or “insolent.”

A quick search on the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that “uppity” usually was and continues to be followed by the N-word or other minority groups in the United States.

Even former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were subjected to this word throughout his presidency. In 2011, Rush Limbaugh directed the term at the first lady in reference to her decision to take her own Boeing 757 aircraft with her children to a NASCAR event ahead of the president. Limbaugh called this “a little bit of uppity-ism,” causing backlash surrounding the use of the term.

Jimmies

If you are a New Englander, you have likely been asked if you would like “jimmies” on your ice cream. It’s simply another way to ask for chocolate sprinkles.

In parts of the Northeast, chocolate sprinkles used as ice cream toppings are often called "jimmies."Getty Images

There are competing opinions on the origin of the term. According to Wright, these brown sprinkles were called jimmies as a form of "othering" from the regular sprinkles. The fact that they are brown suggests to Wright that they represent little Black people. Still other etymologists believe that the term comes from the Jim Crow laws used to segregate the South, with jimmies representing those Black people bound by these laws.

Just Born, the candy company best known for its Peeps, claims jimmies were named after James Bartholomew, the employee who operated the first sprinkle machine. But whether Just Born actually invented the name or the treat is still up for debate.

And this wouldn’t be the first sugary treat to have a name tied to racism; the companies behind Aunt Jemima syrup and Eskimo Pie announced they will rename these products. Meanwhile, an article published by NPR reported that in 1923, a candy made out of Brazilian nuts dipped in chocolate sold under the name “n-----’s toes.”

Master bedroom

The word “master” harks back to the time of slavery in the United States when white male plantation owners were addressed with the term. But the word also suggests that a master is a man. Oxford English Dictionary lists numerous definitions, and nearly all of them mention the word denotes a man in power.

The first printed use of “master bedroom” came in a 1926 Sears catalog to describe a lavish home, but only sparked discussion in the past few years.

As a result, the Houston Association of Realtors ended its use of the term “master bedroom,” citing its ties to slavery. Instead, HAR will use “primary bedroom” and “primary bathroom” in its listings. And although Wright supports the decision, she understands people’s outrage.

“That’s where ‘master bedroom’ gets people really angry because most people aren't thinking about slavery when they say ‘master bedroom,’ they're just thinking it's the big room,” she said. “To me, that's why you should talk about it. If there are people that are saying, ‘This word makes me feel like I'm being called out for my race and not my behavior,’ then it obviously still has that connotation for some people."

For Wright, the word is less about its connection to slavery and more about what it says about the “subjugation of women.” She likened the change to how politicians have eliminated “chairman” for the more inclusive term “chairperson.” Indeed, the move toward gender-neutral language is ongoing. The Associated Press, for example, has even eliminated the usage of “manhole” in favor of “maintenance hole."

As word choice among advertising, retail and media companies evolves, these new terms will slowly become normalized in everyday culture.

Sold down the river

The phrase refers to the practice during the time of slavery in the United States when plantations in the Upper South would sell troublesome enslaved people to the brutal plantations in the Deep South in states like Mississippi. Oftentimes, it was viewed as a death sentence. According to the Mississippi Encyclopedia, the “river” in question almost always meant the Mississippi or Ohio rivers.

Cakewalk

A word often used to denote a task that is easy to perform, the truth behind this word has to do with a different kind of performance that was not so easy. Oxford English Dictionary writes that a “cakewalk” was a dancing contest judged by plantation owners — with a cake as the prize.

Unbeknownst to those who held people in slavery, it allowed the enslaved dancers to mock and oppose the white Southern elite. Couples dressed in their finest clothing, and according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, would dance until the music stopped. Then, dancers would land on a number, and if it was called “they would take the cake.”

This 1903 photo captures what a traditional cakewalk dance looked like. Black folks would dress in ornate clothing as a form of mocking high white society and dance.Wilhelm Scharmann / Getty Images

Eventually, this tradition entered minstrel shows. White performers would dress in ridiculous fashion and present the cakewalk as a failed attempt to rise to the levels of white sophistication. In some cases, Black performers would even be brought out to perform the dances to the delight of audience members.

“I think people may choose not to move away from these usages, but I think a handful — and perhaps a growing mass — of people will say, ‘I'm not going to use these words anymore,’ just like people decided, ‘I'm going to announce my pronouns,”’ Wright said. “Even though I fall into a traditional gender category, I'm still going to say ‘she/her/hers.’”

Call a spade a spade

For anyone thinking this phrase refers to the playing card suit, take note: The word “spade” is a well-documented derogatory slur toward Black people. Wright said that H.L. Mencken — one of the first American lexicographers — published his 1919 book “The American Language” and listed the word among some of the many names to call “Negroes.” Also listed were “skunk,” “black bird” and even “spade lips.”

However, the phrase to “call a spade a spade” originated from the Greek phrases “call a fig a fig” and “call a trough a trough.” NPR reported that it was only when Nicholas Udall translated “Erasmus” in 1542 that to “call a spade a spade” entered the English language.

At that point, the phrase used “spade” in reference to the gardening implement, and only later in the early 20th century did the term “spade” get co-opted from Harlem Renaissance writers by white people as a slur.

“Black sheep,” “Blacklist,” etc.

Wright explained that even though some terms like “blacklist” and “black book” originated in America during the start of slavery in the 1610s, using the color black to denote something bad is part of languages around the world. Languages including Korean and Finnish utilize this phenomenon known as “productive compounding,” Wright said.

An article published by Frank Houghton and Sharon Houghton discussing racist language in the medical field cited that the word “blackness” has 120 synonyms. Of these, 60 are distinctly negative, with none being positive. Meanwhile, the word "whiteness" was reported as having 134 synonyms, with only 10 having any negative connotations.

“Perhaps deep, deep down in the etymologies of dark and light, we're not talking about race, but we've been talking about race when we were making new language for centuries now,” Wright said. “The connotations of blackness with badness are absolutely rife in our language. Certainly, I wouldn't say that they are racist, but they certainly have a racial connotation.”

To make language more equitable, CNN reported that the National Institute of Standards and Technology vowed to stop using “blacklist” and “whitelist.” In technology, a “blacklist” refers to online elements that are blocked, while a “whitelist” comprises elements that are permitted.

Wright said that although she believes society can go too far in policing language, people should "arm themselves with information" and reflect on the words they use. For words with a racist or offensive history, Wright said the gesture of eliminating the usage of such terms has real ramifications.

“Every single time somebody writes ‘chairperson,’ even if it is inside an internal document that no one in the public sees, it matters,” she said. “Every use of language is an act, and those acts build into our general understanding. And so I absolutely think that every time somebody makes an effort to move away from this kind of language, that it does matter, it's not an empty gesture.”