We know words matter and have the power to influence, oppress and harm. Some words and phrases have slipped so seamlessly into our English lexicon that we have lost touch with their problematic and racist origins. So much so, we have to actively deprogram our use of them. Here are 10 common words and phrases that have no place in our vocabulary — and what to work on saying instead.
1 / 10
Often used to describe unsolicited opinions from gossipy or ill-informed onlookers, this term originates in the 19th century Vaudeville era (a genre of popular theatre that featured unrelated acts of comedy or farce). The peanut gallery itself referred to the lower section of theatre that held cheaper seats and where Black people sat. Because peanuts were sold at these shows, and sometimes people would throw peanuts at unpopular acts, the term evolved to connote unwarranted criticism. While the term has classist as well as racist undertones, the Vaudeville era acts themselves were blatantly racist, featuring caricaturization of Black people, including Black face.
What to say instead:Critic, commentator
2 / 10
Like “sold down the river,” grandfathered in echoes institutionalized racist practices. While we use the term to mean that a person, people, or organizations are allowed to continue following existing rules or laws, even after a new rule or law has been passed, its origins are much more problematic. While America’s 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote in 1870, several states erected institutional barriers to intentionally complicate this process. They instituted expensive poll taxes and literacy tests that made it nearly impossible for Black men to cast their votes at that time. Because this same law would prevent some white men from voting too, the states went around this by passing what’s known as “the grandfather clause,” stipulating that if you could vote before the 15th Amendment (meaning you are white), or were the lineal descendent of a voter (likely also meaning you are white), you didn’t have to take tests or pay the toll tax. In other words, you were “grandfathered in” to being allowed to vote.
What to say instead:Legacied in, exempted, excused
3 / 10
Used to describe someone who is full of themselves, there is some evidence that the term originated within the Black community (earliest references point to Black American folktales). However, the term was quickly adopted by white Southerners to describe Black people who were thought to exceed their station (in other words who violated whites’ expectations of deference or who “did not know their place”). It was used even as recently as 2011 when Rush Limbaugh used it in reference to Michelle Obama. Sadly, she is not the only Black woman in the public eye to endure racism and mistreatment.
What to say instead:Arrogant, self-important, conceited, pretentious
4 / 10
Perhaps used lightheartedly to describe something that’s hard to understand or fathom, the word is an adaptation from the Mandinka word maamajomboo (Mandinka is a language spoken in West Africa, primarily in parts of Mali, Guinea and the Ivory Coast). Maamajomboo refers to a masked male dancer who is participating in religious ceremonies. The term has been adapted to refer to senseless or meaningless ritual. Ouch. Not only racist but dismissive of other cultural religious beliefs.
What to say instead:It’s incoherent, hard to understand
5 / 10
“Gyp / gypped”
This term is thought to come from the word “gypsy” — itself a derogatory and inaccurate name for the ethnic Roma people who were thought to originate from Egypt, and who live throughout Europe and America. The term gyp or gypped refers to being swindled and paints a whole group of people with one, simplistic brush.
What to say instead:Swindled, cheated
6 / 10
While Paddy is a common nickname for Patrick, and Patrick is indeed a common name in Ireland (recall the Emerald Isle’s patron saint), the term Paddy wagon appears to refer to 1900s police transports of Irish people. At the time, Irish immigrants were often mistreated and thought to be no better than criminals, especially by the British.
What to say instead:Police patrol
7 / 10
“Sold down the river”
The connotations of this one are pretty clear... it refers to the sale of people and is often used to refer to being betrayed. The phrase refers to the common practice of selling people who were enslaved and transporting them down the Mississippi or Ohio Rivers. It unfortunately gets even darker; NPR reported that during times of slavery, slaveholders in the North often sold those who they thought to be misbehaving “down the river”, to plantations further south where conditions were much harsher.
What to say instead:Betrayed, thrown under the bus, cheated or having someone turn their back on you
8 / 10
Once a much more commonly used term to name Inuit people, it stems from a Danish take on a term taken from the Algonquin “ashkimeq,” meaning those who eat raw flesh (though some researchers suggest it could also mean “snowshoe netter” as well). Either way, it is not the word used by the Inuit themselves to self-identify, and it trivializes the entire group by focusing on singular descriptions.
What to say instead:Inuit
9 / 10
“Hip hip hooray”
The history of this phrase is a bit less clear, but some believe it stems from Germany’s anti-Sematic past. Some think that the phrase became commonly used during the 19th-century anti-Sematic demonstrations where Germans cheered “hep hep” — a German herding call — as they forced Jews from their homes across Europe. Hooray is a variation of “hurrah” — a version of a sailor’s shout of excitement.
What to say instead:Yey! Hooray! Wooo!
10 / 10
“Long time, no see”
Like “no can do,” the theory is that these came into common usage by way of British and American Navies who picked up the phrases through their interactions in the far East with people speaking pidgin English (a simplified version of a language). Another version of the story points to old Western novels that cite interactions with Indigenous peoples. No matter what the origin though, it is mocking to people who are English language learners.
What to say instead:It’s been so long! Haven’t seen you in forever!