Seven Words And Phrases With Racist Origins

Seven Words And Phrases With Racist Origins

The English language is constantly evolving, with new words and phrases spreading among us like an infection ” we hear things, then we say those things. The problem is that we don’t always bother to wonder if we should. Because of that, the original meaning of some demeaning and hateful expressions get lost in time. Here are some widely used examples.

“Gyp” or “Gypped” or “Jip” or “Jipped”

This means to be cheated, swindled, or taken advantage of in modern vernacular, but it’s referring to a very specific subset of people in a very negative way. The word comes from the already offensive term “gypsy,” which is often used to inappropriately, and inaccurately, describe the Romani people. When the Romani moved from India to Europe, they were mistaken for Egyptians because of their dark skin, so they were dubbed “gypsies.” Somewhere along the way, people concluded that all “gypsies” are thieves and swindlers, thus the term “gypped” was born.

“No Can Do” and “Long Time No See”

Out of all the expressions on this page, you’ve most likely said these at some point. It might be surprising to see these seemingly innocuous phrases on this list, but they’re actually born out of mean-spirited mockery. In the early 20th century, “no can do” and other broken English phrases were a way to make fun of how Chinese immigrants and other ESL people attempted to communicate. The same goes for “long time no see,” which was use to mock Native American Pidgin English speaking patterns.

“Paddy Wagon”

This is a popular term for those large police vehicles that can hold multiple people who have been arrested. You usually see them around large gatherings and events. If the “Paddy” part of the term hasn’t tipped you off yet (“Paddy” is semi-derogatory slang word for an Irishman), “paddy wagon” refers to those of Irish descent in a negative way. The term likely came about in early 20th century or late 19th century for one of two reasons. Either it was because many police officers at the time were of Irish descent and drove those wagons, or more likely because so many people of Irish descent were being loaded up into those wagons.

“Off the Reservation”

People use this phrase nowadays to describe someone who is deviating from what is expected of them. Basically, if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, someone might tell you that “you’re off the reservation right now.” Back in the 19th century, however, it had a very different and specific meaning. As Kee Malesky at NPR explains, the phrase literally referred to Native Americans breaking strict US government rules and leaving their designated reservation land without proper authority. Local authorities would send telegrams with messages along the lines of, “Currently no Indians are off the reservation without authority,” or “We’ve located a band of Indians living off the reservation and plan to arrest them.”


This word is often used to describe someone as being arrogant or self-important — like, “Don’t get all uppity on us” — but it has a pretty disturbing history. It was originally a racist term used in the American south to describe black people who didn’t know their place. It was usually part of a two-word descriptor that I’m sure you can guess on your own.


The word comes from a heretical religious sect during the Middle Ages called “Bulgarus” who practiced sodomy. Over time, the term transformed into “bulgar” and then “bugger.” Essentially, the word means “Bulgarian sodomite.”

“Sold Down the River”

People say something along the lines of “You sold me down the river!” when they have been screwed over. The phrase now means to be cheated or betrayed, like when someone gets taken advantage of. But this phrase’s origin is tied to the slave trade in 19th-century America. Slave owners would often sell off troublesome slaves (usually men), literally sending them down the Mississippi river, to plantations with harsher conditions. So, when you say “You sold me down the river!” you’re saying “You’re treating me like a misbehaving slave,” which is most certainly not accurate.

If you didn’t know these expressions were racist in origin and have used them in the past, that’s ok. But now that you know, rethink your vernacular and find new ways to express these feelings. Better yet, take this as a reminder to always think about what you say in the future. Before you go repeating something you heard, do some of your own research on the terminology, and cultivate a desire to understand the words that come out of your mouth and flow through your fingers.

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This article has been updated since its original publication.


  • While its good to learn origin, I still think the intent is more important.
    Even if someone’s understanding of a word is incorrect, the intent is what is important rather than the word or phrase.
    Words and meanings are always changing.

    • Fully agree. Offence is in the intent, not necessarily the act.

      Easy example was the cheese company Coon who had to deal with a court case a while back. Some Aboriginal group felt it was discriminating, and demanded they change their name.

      Case was shut down VERY fast (and why it got to court at all I’ll never understand) when it was pointed out that the name came from the founders surname. Something they should have realised before even starting their action, and understanding there was zero offence in the name.

      Words can have multiple meanings, they’re called homonyms.

      • Except that the above phrases weren’t synonyms or names sounding like offensive words – they are phrases directly linked with some disturbing stuff. In the end though, society as a whole directs what is accepted and what isn’t and I don’t think the above is going to cause a purge of those phrases from the vernacular.

        • They’ve become synonyms though, taking on new meanings over time. The intent is still key to whether someone is being offensive or not, and many errors get made in our very connected world.

          In one culture, its offensive to leave food on a plate, while in another, its offensive not to. If you dont know, you can easily fall foul of one or the other, which is the point. Not knowing something is offensive has to be allowed for, as its just too easy to miss something in this day and age.

          if we stopped using every word with derogatory origins or uses, half the nouns in the English language would be taboo. Some should be obvious, most wouldnt be.

          I fit enough target groups that this sort of stuff has been part of my entire life, but its usually pretty easy to see when someones trying to offend me. Which isnt very often these days, so why get upset when someone uses a word naively?

  • If we are going to claim bugger is racist, then let’s put barbarian on there as well – as it was ancient Greeks mocking people who didn’t speak Greek – they all sounded like they were saying “bar bar”.

  • Well, I use bugger all the time, so that sucks to know.
    A certain singer blocked me for using the word ‘gobbledygook’ (at least that is the only thing I can think he did it for), even though so far as I know it has no racist history (it sounds like a turkey to me).

    My mother calls me Sambo all the time, has ever since I was a kid. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned that lot of people considered it racist in some places. My mother never knew.

    • Yep, gobbledygook is imitating (or referring to) a turkey – nothing racist about it.

      Similarly to niggardly – the use of which ended up in the forced resignation of an aide to the Washington mayor (among other controversies). It has absolutely no connection to the “n word”, but that doesn’t matter much when we are in a era where we are told to stop using a word because it is racist against middle ages sect members….

  • The gipped one surprises a lot of people. People who would never knowingly use racist words use this one, and they’re horrified when I explain it to them.

  • If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

    If a saying’s origin is racist, but the racist connotation has been so lost to time that you need to do research to find out that it even was racist, is it still offensive? I don’t believe any person nowadays who says “no can do”, “bugger” or “uppity” (for example) would have any idea of the racist origin and I highly doubt the people of those races have any idea either (and therefore don’t associate it with the racist connotation). Does it matter then? Doesn’t an article like this just serve to dig up racism where there isn’t any intended or received and say “Hey! These phrases that are now considered innocuous by society at large should be regarded as hate speech by anyone who utters them!”? The language has obviously evolved past those initial meanings, why try and drag it back to a more hateful place? What is there to gain from that (aside from the potential for the “I need to always be offended by something” crowd to get their quick fix?)

  • Should I say I am feeling a little buggered by this? Or would it be more PC to say, felling a little sodomized?

    Ever heard the term Newspeak?
    Language of Ingsoc, a fictional empire in the book 1984. The language was meant to eliminate all words deemed as nonsence, and was created to eliminate certain words, so dissent could not be expressed nor communicated

    Newspeak is becoming a little less fictional everyday.

  • Get a grip people. How long before we will experience a guilt trip simply by getting out of bed in the morning?
    Language, like everything evolves and no amount of breast beating will ever change that.

  • Bugger that! I feel so gypped after reading this article written by this uppity author about being off the reservation in a paddy wagon that I feel we, the readers, have been sold down the river. I think I’ll just get off this website for a while so when I come back you guys can say, “long time no see”.

  • well bugger me! seems like this article has gone off the reservation and i’m feeling mighty Gypped. This uppity author thinks i’m gonna sell my integrity down the river and stop speaking this way because i might offend some uppity SJW….

    also paddy wagon.

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