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
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 where these come from.
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
Using "ghetto" as an adjective to mean "low class" has obvious racist origins. Technically, the 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.
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
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 Mississippi during the slave trade. "Troublesome"
slaves would literally be sold down the river to southern Mississippi
where the plantation conditions were much harsher.
(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.