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Origins of Offensive Words and Phrases We Shouldn’t Use Anymore

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

Humans use a lot of words to get through the day, but you might be surprised how many words and phrases have offensive origins.

There are some words that are just archaic and no longer relevant to the world, and then there are those with racist or violent origins that you might not be aware of.

If it is not your intention to be sexist, racist, or just terrible, then you might want to strike these words and phrases from your vocabulary.

Spinster

I was scrolling through Quora the other day, and someone inquired “At what age does a woman become a spinster?” Now, I have read my share fair of historically based romance novels and know the meaning of this word—it is a lady of marriageable age who has yet to get married.

Now, for the ladies in my novels set in the Regency and Victorian Era, being a spinster was a horrible fate. However, it isn’t the 1800s anymore, and women do not have to be married to move out of their father’s house or have access to funds.

It has a derogatory context too because these unmarried women weren’t bringing in dowries so they brought their family shame. Or it was implied they were too ugly or unreasonable to make a match. At around age 26, these women started to be referred to as “thornbacks.”

Not to mention the marriageable age was considered between 18-23 back then. Women in today’s society might be focusing on college or careers at this age, so the word really shouldn’t apply. The idea that a woman at any age in 2022 should feel some sort of shame for not being married is ridiculous.

Origin:

It started out as an occupational term for someone of any gender who spun yarn or thread. However, more often than not a woman without a husband might have to rely on spinning as a source of income. Spinster then became associated with unmarried women, eventually becoming the legal way to refer to one.

Uppity

I grew up in Florida and heard this word a lot. I thought it just meant someone was being “haughty” and “snobby”—putting on airs or being stuck up. Whenever I used it I was referring to the mean cheerleader who thought she was better than everyone else. When I moved to the Northwest part of the United States, I rarely heard the word anymore.

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It took me years to figure out that this word had negative racial connotations. When Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia referred to the Obama’s as “uppity” in 2008, I didn’t understand the outrage.

I mean I loved the Obama’s and didn’t think they were snobby, but I didn’t understand why being called snobby was so bad. This was the moment I learned about the origin of this word, and it’s awful.

Origin

Uppity was used to disparage Black people as “not remembering their place as inferior.” Now, maybe if it was a mean word racist people used that would be one thing.

However, between the years 1880-1930 approximately 5,000 black men and women were lynched (hung in public spectacle). The majority of the rationale for murdering these people was listed as being deemed insolent and uppity.

This is another term that dates back to the late 1800s early 1900s. I have used this term before when my kids start on with unsolicited opinions.

The peanut gallery refers to “the rearmost and cheapest section of seats in the balcony or the uppermost balcony of a theater.” It apparently takes its name from the people who sat there eating peanuts.

These opinionated hecklers would often throw their peanuts at the performers they did not like. I knew that this term was used to note that it was a source of insignificant criticism, but I didn’t realize that it had racial undertones.

Origins

The term originated from vaudeville shows. It referred to the cheap balcony seats which were often reserved for, or largely made up of, African American patrons.

Thus, since the phrase implies that the opinions expressed by those from the gallery were insignificant and unwarranted it conveys a negative tone about those giving them.

Sold down the river

You might have heard this term when someone betrays you or stabs you in the back. Like if a coworker goes behind your back and secures a promotion you deserve. You might say they “sold you down the river.”

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However, this term has a dark origin and you really should avoid using it. Once, I realized the deeply rooted racial connection I chose to stick to other phrases. Betrayal is never pretty, and a term that expresses it would involve a deep betrayal, but the origins of this phrase are just too many.

Origin

It is believed that this term originated as an allusion to selling and transporting enslaved people. ‘The river’ in question is the Mississippi and ‘down’ references the transfer of slaves from north to south.

The reason this term is often used in times of betrayal is that it conveys the loss of security these slaves felt, along with the faith they had in their Northern owners. They lost their home and family and were humiliated.

Rule of thumb

Now, this term seems pretty innocuous and we use it to express an approximate method for doing something, or doing something based on practical experience rather than theory. Its origin supports this harmless meaning.

The expression dates back to the 1600s when, during a construction project, measurement tools were not as readily available. The workers would use a handy body part. In 1998, wordsmith William Safire cited that “rule of thumb” was used in 1692 and then again, as an established proverb in 1721.

However, it took a much more sexist meaning in the late 1800s.

Origin

Sir Francis Buller ruled in 1886 that ‘a man was entitled to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb.’ As we know, one shouldn’t beat ones spouse with anything, so I don’t think I will continue to use this phrase anymore either!

Basket case

Now, this phrase is usually used when we are feeling or acting a bit crazy. Something along the lines of all this stress has me acting like a basket case. I just thought this phrase meant we had lost our minds for a minute and were having difficulty coping.

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However, the phrase has a tragic origin that dates back to World War I.

Origin

The term describes people that had been gravely injured in the war. More specifically, they had lost all four limbs and needed to be carried in a basket. Understandably, these people were in pain and having trouble coping.

Cat got your tongue

This is a cute little phrase for when you don’t seem to have anything to say about a situation, right? I always imagined a cat grabbing someone’s tongue with their little paws and claws like they do with yarn.

However, that did strike me as odd that a saying would have started from something that seemed so improbable. The truth is not cute at all.

Origin

The English Navy used to use a whip called the “Cat-o’-nine-tails” to flog victims. The pain was excruciating and the people being whipped were in too much pain to speak. It doesn’t sound cute anymore…

What are your thoughts on these offensive words and phrases

Now, some people might think it is a little silly to get worked up over words, but I disagree. As a writer, I understand the power of choosing the right word. There is a difference between very painful and excruciating. The tone of a word and its origin should matter.

“Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” — Yehuda Berg

Words are powerful and we just run around all day spewing them with little thought. Maybe you don’t find every word or phrase on this list offensive enough to stop using, because you don’t mean it that way. But if someone else is aware of the origin, they may read more into it than you intend. So just choose your words wisely.

Do you have any more phrases with surprisingly more meaningful origins? Let us know in the comment section below.

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