These Words You Use Every Day Have Racist/Prejudiced Pasts, And You Had No Idea

These Words You Use Every Day Have Racist/Prejudiced Pasts, And You Had No Idea

When I was a kid, everyone used the phrase Indian giver. We didn't even think about it. We weren't reprimanded by teachers, either. Admittedly, I went to grade school in Texas.

To me, it seems odd that the phrase even still exists. At this point in history, we should all know that it is ridiculous to say that American Indians reneged on their promise to give European settlers land that they had never agreed to give in the first place.

While Indian giver might seem more obviously racist (you certainly wouldn't hear anyone using such a phrase in the office), there are plenty of other phrases that you might use every day that have racist/prejudice origins.

For example, did you know that Hip hip hooray! used to be a Nazi war cry used to invade the Jewish ghettoes during the Holocaust?

Word meanings and connotations change all the time. Over time, word origins are forgotten, and words and phrases that were previously taboo or offensive no longer carry the same weight. Does that mean that they're no longer offensive? It depends on how you look at language. Certainly, not many people know hip hip hooray's horrifying usage.

However, I still thought you might like to know the history of these words and phrases.


The word "gyp" now means "to cheat or swindle." It is essentially a condensing of the word "gypsies," who throughout history have been stereotyped as a group that cheats and swindles people. Before the contemporary definition of "gypsy," which is essentially just a "nomadic person," "gypsy" was a slur used to refer to the Eastern European Romanies.


Using "ghetto" as an adjective to mean "low class" has obvious racist origins. The noun "ghetto" originated as an area in Venice, Italy: it was the place where Jewish people lived (this also has racial implications, but of a different sort than the adjective "ghetto"). Technically, the current definition of "ghetto" (noun) is "a part of a city in which members of a particular group or race live usually in poor conditions." Whether intended or not, the user is essentially implying that minorities are low class.

Chinese whispers:

This phrase, meaning "inaccurately transmitted gossip" is more often used in the UK than the U.S. It actually originated as "Russian scandal" or "Russian gossip," but was later changed for unclear reasons. It is supposed that the origin of this phrase has something to do with the Chinese language being difficult to understand and/or translate. Regardless, it's probably better the refer to poorly transmitted gossip as "a game of Telephone."

Irish goodbye:

An Irish goodbye is another way of saying "a hasty exit without stopping to formally say 'goodbye' to anyone." It can also be known as a French exit. Or probably just "insert any country that your country has a problem with" exit. In France, it's called "filer à l'anglaise" (to leave the English way). At any rate, you might want to think before you use a phrase that stereotypes an entire nationality of people as being rude.

"Sold down the river:"

This phrase, meaning "betrayed" or "cheated" originated in the Mississippi River region during the American slave trade. "Troublesome" slaves would literally be sold down the river to southern Mississippi where the plantation conditions were much harsher.

Peanut galleries:

"Peanut galleries" (which now means "a source for hecklers," usually used in a joking manner) were the upper balconies that African-American people sat in in segregated theaters. They were also known by several even more derogatory names (which will not be shared here).


The word "uppity," a word beloved by conservative news pundits, originated as a word used by Southerners in reference to African-Americans that they deemed didn't know their place in society.

Hip hip hooray:

This comes from the German "hep hep," which was originally a shepherds' herding cry, so the origin itself was not racially charged. However, during the Holocaust, German citizens began using it as a rallying cry while hunting for Jewish people in the ghettoes. Its anti-Semitic usage even dates back to the 1819 riots (the "Hep-Hep Riots").

"Call a spade a spade:"

This is a particularly interesting example. The phrase, essentially meaning "to explicitly call something by its rightful name," entered the English language in 1542, and initially had absolutely no racial connotation whatsoever. It referred to the gardening tool. It wasn't until the late 1920s that "spade" changed from referring to the gardening tool to being a slur towards African-Americans (its first public appearance as such was in Claude McKay's 1928 book "Home to Harlem"). In the fourth edition of "The American Language," Wolfgang Mieder notes that the word "spade" (among others) "will give deep offense if used by nonblacks."

CLARIFICATION: Some language in this post has been changed to make clear that "Hip hip hooray" did not ORIGINATE as a racist phrase, but rather evolved into one. Language has also been added/ amended in several instances to emphasize that this article addresses the racist, but not the comprehensive, etymologies of these terms.

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