9 words with offensive origins
Nothing is stranger than discovering that words or phrases we hear every day have offensive or problematic origins. And while there’s no need to cast aspersions on the language of bygone days, it’s helpful to check in on the words we use and what they mean (or used to mean). Some of the words here have just had their meanings softened over time, but others have origin stories that we seem more comfortable having forgotten.
1. no can do
The widespread use of the phrase in English today has obscured its origin: what might seem like folksy, abbreviated version of I can’t do it is actually an imitation of Chinese Pidgin English. The phrase dates from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, an era when Western attitudes towards the Chinese were markedly racist.
Another phrase imitative of the syntax of pidgin English, long time no see was originally meant as a humorous interpretation of a Native American greeting, used after a prolonged separation. The current earliest citation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comes from W.F. Drannan’s book Thirty-one Years on Plains (1901): ‘When we rode up to him [sc. an American Indian] he said: ‘Good mornin. Long time no see you’.
3. basket case
Although basket case is typically used today to refer to either a country or organization with severe financial difficulties or a ‘person or thing regarded as useless or unable to cope’ (think of Green Day’s canonical pop-punk tune), the term originally referred to a person, usually a soldier from World War I, who has lost all four limbs. The basket in this sense refers to the basket that the person would need to be carried around in. In this sense, the word is considered very offensive.
4. paddy wagon
Although the sense of paddy wagon in North American English, referring to a police van, isn’t considered offensive today, Paddy is a derogatory term of address to an Irishman. ‘Paddy’ is the pet name for Patrick (Irish Pádraig), one of the most common Irish names, because St. Patrick is Ireland’s apostle and patron saint. One suggestion for how paddy was appended to wagon is that formerly many American police officers were of Irish descent.
While the word is still used as an insult today, it usually just refers to ‘a stupid person’. However, the word started off as a psychological designation, referring to someone with learning difficulties (a learning disability in North American English). In fact, moron was first adopted and given this meaning in 1910 by the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded in 1910, with reference to the Greek word μῶρος, ‘foolish’ or ‘stupid’. Today, the word is generally avoided now due to the more widespread sense of ‘stupid person’.
Like moron, cretin is another word used today as an insult to refer to a ‘stupid person’, although it also has a more dated, medical sense. That sense refers to ‘a person who is deformed and mentally handicapped because of congenital thyroid deficiency’. The word comes from the Swiss French crestin ‘Christian’ (from Latin Christianus), used to mean ‘human being’, ostensibly to remind people that ‘though deformed, cretins were human and not beasts’.
Although no direct evidence exists linking the word gyp, ‘to cheat or swindle (someone)’, with the group of people known as ‘gypsies’, many have suggested that such a connection exists. The gypsies, also known as the Roma, are a traveling people who traditionally live by itinerant trade and fortune telling. The word Gypsy comes from the term gipcyan, short for Egyptian, as Gypsies were popularly thought to have come from Egypt, although the language that they speak, Romany, is related to Hindi, which suggests that they originated in South Asia.
The grandfather clause is a North American term that refers to a clause that ‘exempts certain classes of people or things from the requirements of a piece of legislation affecting their previous rights, privileges, or practices’. While that might sound straightforward, the word’s history shines a light on the racist political strategy of the early 20th-century US. In order to curtail black voting, several southern states in the US passed constitutional clauses that permitted white people to vote while disenfranchising black people, by allowing the descendants of those who voted before 1867 to vote without having to meet stringent conditions, i.e. allowing those whose grandfathers had voted before 1867 to vote.
For those not well-acquainted with the news of the late 1970s, the origin of the phrase to drink the Kool-Aid, with reference to a person’s demonstration of unquestioning obedience or loyalty, probably seems a little obscure. However, the phrase emerged from the news coverage surrounding the mass suicide of the Peoples’ Temple, a political and religious movement in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. The members of the movement drank a cyanide-laced drink compared at the time to the fruit-flavored drink Kool-Aid.