Terms you didn’t know may be racist

It began with an article posted on the NPR website. It seems that the catchy tune played by many ice cream trucks back in the day, “Turkey in the Straw,” actually was used by one songwriter for his lyrics of racial hatred.

The possibly racist ice cream truck

The facts seem fairly obvious, but that does not mean today’s ice cream vendor, or purchaser, is a racist or even knows about the melody’s dark past (pun intended).

What set me on this road, quite aside from my love of ice cream, was a term used by sports columnist Marcus Hayes, who was a colleague and friend at the Philadelphia Daily News.

Marcus is very well informed and, like most columnists, right about half the time. He is also liberal, very opinionated, and biracial, so I was a little surprised by his use of the term “the jig was up” in a Sunday column.

The term is racist, at least for some people.

I looked it up on The Root Black website, and, yup, there it was — along with a mess more that I am sharing here.

Why am I doing this? Education, mostly, and also a caution that some terms you use could be similarly tainted, and could lead to you being called a racist.

No, I am not calling Marcus a racist, nor anyone who uses the following terms. They are only racist if they know the terms are offensive and use them anyway. Most have been in the lexicon so long they have lost their racist tinge. The following is from The Root.

These seemingly innocuous terms have questionable origins or histories related to race, and there’s probably plenty more where they came from.

1. “The peanut gallery”: Just a dismissive term for hecklers or critics, right? Wrong. You’ll probably never use this phrase in reference to a group of Black people again once you know its history. It originally referred to the balconies of segregated theaters, where African Americans had to sit. (Why “peanut”? Apparently, peanuts were introduced to America during the slave trade and thus became associated with blacks.)

2. “The jig is up”: Although this expression is used today to describe a joke or scheme that has been revealed or foiled, you’re the one whose fun might end quickly if you say it to the wrong person. This hasn’t been proved beyond a doubt, but many believe the saying was used in its original form by some in the American South to refer to the lynching of a black person. Replace “j” with “n” and you’ll get it.

3. “Call a spade a spade”: For more than 500 years, this expression has meant “to tell it like it is.” But it wasn’t until the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s that “spade” became a disparaging code word for Black people. It’s probably best to retire this phrase forever.

4. “Sold down the river”: Today, if people say they’ve been “sold down the river,” they probably mean they’ve been betrayed. But when the phrase originated, that betrayal was a lot more serious. During slavery, being “sold down the river” was literal. Slave owners would sell their slaves and send them via the Mississippi or Ohio River to plantations in the Deep South, where plantation conditions were much worse.

5. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”: Learning the history of this phrase might taint your childhood memories. Heard at playgrounds around the world, this counting-out expression comes from a classic children’s rhyme dating back to the 19th century. Some early versions include the lyric, “Catch a n—ger by the toe.” The n-word was replaced by “tiger” in later years. Not quite as cute now, is it?

6. “Cotton-picking”: “Are you out of your cotton-picking mind?” We’ve all heard the phrase, but the term has an ugly, if debatable, past. Some say it was used to denote the inferior status of poor farmers and field hands in the Southern states, many of whom were slaves. We’ll just say you’d have to be crazy to say this to anyone who might associate it with that history.

7. “Spook”: How can this word be so bad? If you’ve ever celebrated Halloween, you’ve used some version of it. What is now used regularly to mean “ghost” or to frighten is also a slur akin to “n—ger.” It may have its origins in the perception that dark skin blends into the night, making black people ghostlike. Scarily racist.

8. “Grandfather clause”: You may have been lucky enough to be “grandfathered” into your cellphone plan, but this term has an ugly past. During the 1890s, half a dozen Southern states enacted laws to defy the 15th Amendment and prevent Black people from exercising their newfound right to vote. In these states, you were allowed to vote only if your parents or grandparents were able to vote before the year 1867—which was conveniently before Blacks had access to the ballot. These days we all have equal rights to this phrase, but it’s probably best if we agree to go ahead and drop it.

20 thoughts on “Terms you didn’t know may be racist”

  1. Dutch treat. Mexican standoff. Scots are tightwads. Italians are stupid, ditto the Poles. Jews have no business ethics, and the Irish are drunks. And I won’t get into the Muslims, the Catholics, the Mormons and the other religions that all have their haters. And how about the newscaster who got fired for using the word ‘niggardly.’ Or Howard Cosell whose career got tainted because he said, “Look at that little monkey run,” when describing a football player who made a great run in a game. Language — it can really screw you up if you let it.

    Here we all are. You and Vince are from the world of English grammar, therefore you speak and understand English, as wood anyone who has studied law. The rest of us get by with backyard, backdoor ( whoops ! ) colloquialisms. Joe average can really butcher the English language, without meaning to toss around insults or inferiorities. Tony doesn’t do too bad either, but then he blames everything on ‘concussions”.

  3. Gregory Hines used “The jig is up” in Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part I. The double entendre was obvious and part of the joke. Were he and Mel racists?

    1. Nope. But language changes. Context changes. Try watching some old movies where Black bellhops, conductors or porters are casually called “boy” and tell me you don’t find it anachronistic at best. Tell me you have to even consciously stop yourself from saying, “boy, can you get my bags?” or calling the front desk to ask that they “send a boy up” to get your luggage. These movies aren’t “racist”–nor is it their theme that “there ought to be racism.” They merely reflect the language of the time which accepted racism as part of the social fabric. I don’t resent folks pointing out other less obvious usages of the same ilk. Doubtless there was a generation of folks who could honestly profess that when they said “boy” in such contexts, they didn’t “mean anything” by it. That excuse has expired and I expect it will expire with respect to other usages as well. Also, given our age, we should not kid ourselves that a bunch of retirees, set in their ways, and prone to believe that the way we grew up was the right way, are the best judges on these issues. “Or at least you’re not,” he said.

  4. I agree with your premise that those words can have a racist meaning, but I would hesitate to place them in a trash bin. To me, nobody owns a word. If it is in the dictionary, it has a meaning, derivation, and can be used properly, then it should remain available. George Carlin went to the Supreme Court for seven words that are used today in street language. Webster publishes words that are being abused by our youth rather than using a synonym. The words “dude, chill, like” and the sentence “It is what it is” are all abused in everyday conversation. That speaks of our generation who has the use of over a quarter of a million words, while 500 suffices to carry on a brief conversation. And now I will have to rephrase my pointing to an Irish couple doing the Irish jig as being a racist dance. Thank you Stu for me now carrying a dictionary to make sure I don’t insult a culture, race, or family name or confuse our public school kids with five-letter words.

  5. here’s a story I’m reminded of as the yearly Roots picnic is announced.Do you know the origin of that word a black friend asks me-“it refers to’pick a n(word) that you would like to lynch”I was incredulous so I later snoped the concept of picnic and sure enough it dismissed my friends ugly derivation as myth.Excitedly I told him the truth and he couldn’t have been more blasé and dismissive.In short he wasn’t interested in the truth and would continue to slander the term.

  6. That was educational! I never knew a few of those things. Language is a funny thing, isn’t it?

  7. As a child my aunt took me for Chinese food. She used to say let’s go for Chinks. I never knew there was anything wrong with that word until I was in my 20’s

      1. A difference: I grew up in a neighborhood that was about 25% Asian (mostly Japanese) and everybody knew “chinks” was an insult and a “bad word.” Maybe the old saw that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” has meaning outside its original intention.

        1. My parents loved EVERYONE, there was no insult intended. This was the ‘40s, the “chinks” were on our side (as opposed to the Japs). I believe Jerry and I are one generation older than you, and that is the main reason.

  8. I only recently learned that the “heebie-jeebies” is derived from the supposed discomfort one feels when around Jews. Let’s not forget welshing (as a kid I thought it was “welching” like the grape jelly) on a debt, indian-giver (truly ironic given that it was the U.S. that gave land and then took it away, er, welshing on the promises), and getting “gypped”–which of course refers to gypsies.
    When I was a kid I heard both versions of “eeny-meeny” but us nice kids used “tiger.”

    1. I, too, used “tiger,” and our language is filled with slights that have since ceased being slights.
      Example, I once called out Frank Rizzo for using Shylock. He had no idea it was once a pejorative for Jews. Being as his inner circle contained many Jews, I know his was not anti-Semitic.

  9. I guess by the same token some things that weren’t slights, can become slights. But, in either case, I think intentions matter. I expect, for example, that Rizzo stopped using Shylock and it is unlikely that you started. I assume he meant “loan shark” and was not making a Shakespearean allusion. (And I mean no offense to the ecologically necessary sea-predator).

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