Some racist terms have been included in the American vocabulary for so long that many who use them are often clueless about their origins.
In most situations, the word "boy" is not a problem. Used to describe an African American man, however, the word is troublesome. That's because historically whites routinely described black men as boys to suggest African Americans weren't on equal footing with them. Both during and after slavery, African Americans weren't viewed as full-fledged people but as mentally, physically, and spiritually inferior beings to whites. Calling black men "boys" was one way to express the racist ideologies of yesteryear.
Despite its widespread use as a racial putdown, in Ash v. Tyson Foods, the U.S. Court of Appeals decided that "boy" cannot be considered a racial slur unless it's prefaced with a racial marker such as "black." This decision has sparked controversy, considering that whites typically didn't call African American "black boys" during Jim Crow, but simply "boys."
The good news, according to Prerna Lal of Change.org, is that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the holding, ruling "that the use of the word 'boy' on its own is not enough evidence of racial animus, but that the word is also not benign." That means the court is willing to consider the context in which "boy" is used to determine if it's being uttered as a racial epithet.
"Gypped" is arguably the most commonly used racist term in existence today. If someone buys a used car that turns out to be lemon, for instance, he may complain, “I got gypped.” So, why is the term offensive? Because it equates the Gypsy, or Roma peoples, with being thieves, cheats and con artists. When someone says that they “got gypped,” they are essentially saying that they were conned.
Explained Jake Bowers, editor of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller ezine Travellers Times, to the British newspaper the Telegraph: “Gypped is an offensive word, it is derived from Gypsy and it’s being used in the same context as a person might once have said they ‘jewed’ somebody if they did an underhand business transaction.”
But don’t take Bowers’ word for it. If you’re still debating whether or not to use the verb “gypped,” consider that Philip Durkin, the principal etymologist at the "Oxford English Dictionary" told the Telegraph that there is a “scholarly consensus” that the word originated as a “racial slur.”
No Can Do and Long Time No See
These two phrases have probably rolled off the tongues of most Americans at some point in time. However, the sayings are only mocking the attempts of Chinese immigrants and Native Americans, for whom English was a second language.
Most people have no idea that the term uppity has racist connotations when applied to black people in particular. Southerners used the term for black people who didn't know their place and that term was usually followed by another racial slur. Despite its negative history, the word is regularly used by various races. Webster's dictionary defines uppity as "putting on or marked by airs of superiority" and likens the word to arrogant and presumptuous. In 2011, the word got some national coverage when Rush Limbaugh said that Michelle Obama showed "uppity-ism."
Considering the Shyster
Many people have come to believe that shyster is an anti-Semitic, but the origins of the word are linked to a Manhattan newspaper editor in 1843–1844. According to an article on Law.com, at the time, there was a crusade against legal and political corruption in the city, and the editor derived the term shyster from the German word scheisse, which means "excrement." There are several reasons for the anti-Semitic confusion including the closeness to Shakespeare's Shylock, and belief that the term came from the proper name of Scheuster, who some think was a corrupt lawyer. The etymology of the word indicates it was never intended as a racial slur, and that it was applied derogatorily to lawyers in general, and not to any one ethnic group.
Sources and Further Information
- Hill, Jane H. "The Everyday Language of White Racism." Malden MN: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2009.
- Wodak, Ruth. "Language, Power and Ideology: Studies in Political Discourse." Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1989.
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