Some racist terms have been included in the American vocabulary for so long that many who use them are often clueless about their origins. In some cases, these are colloquialisms that denigrate minority groups; in others, these are neutral words that have historically taken on harmful meanings when applied to members of certain groups.
In most situations, the word “boy” is not a problem. Used to describe an African American man, however, the word is troublesome. That’s because historically, whites routinely described Black men as boys to suggest African Americans weren’t on equal footing with them. Both during and after enslavement, African Americans weren’t viewed as full-fledged people but as mentally, physically, and spiritually inferior beings to whites. Calling Black men “boys” was one way to express the racist ideologies of yesteryear.
Despite its widespread use as a racial put-down, in Ash v. Tyson Foods, the U.S. Court of Appeals decided that “boy” cannot be considered a racial slur unless it’s prefaced with a racial marker such as “Black.” This decision has sparked controversy, considering that whites typically didn’t call African American “Black boys” during Jim Crow, but simply “boys.”
The good news, according to Prerna Lal of Change.org, is that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the holding, ruling that “the use of the word ‘boy’ on its own is not enough evidence of racial animus, but that the word is also not benign.” That means the court is willing to consider the context in which “boy” is used to determine if it’s being uttered as a racial epithet.
“Gypped” is arguably the most commonly used racist colloquialism in existence today. If someone buys a used car that turns out to be lemon, for instance, they may complain, “I got gypped.” So, why is the term offensive? Because it equates the Gypsy, or Roma people, with being thieves, cheats, and con artists. When someone says that they “got gypped,” they are essentially saying that they were conned.
Explained Jake Bowers, editor of Travellers Times to The Telegraph: “Gypped is an offensive word, it is derived from Gypsy and it’s being used in the same context as a person might once have said they ‘jewed’ somebody if they did an underhand business transaction.”
But don’t take Bowers’ word for it. If you’re still debating whether to use the verb “gypped,” consider that Philip Durkin, the principal etymologist at the “Oxford English Dictionary,” told The Telegraph there is a “scholarly consensus” that the word originated as a “racial slur.”
No Can Do and Long Time No See
These two phrases have probably rolled off the tongues of most Americans at some point in time. However, the sayings are only mocking the English-speaking attempts of Chinese immigrants and Native Americans, for whom English was a second language.
Many people have no idea that the term uppity has racist connotations when applied to Black people in particular. Southerners used the term for Black people who didn’t “know their place” and coupled it with a racial slur. Despite its negative history, the word is regularly used by various races. Merriam-Webster defines uppity as “putting on or marked by airs of superiority” and likens the word to arrogant and presumptuous behaviour. In 2011, the word got some national coverage when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said that then-first lady Michelle Obama exhibited “uppity-ism.”
Considering the Shyster
Many people have come to believe that shyster is anti-Semitic, but the origins of the word are linked to a Manhattan newspaper editor in 1843–1844. According to Law.com, during this time, there was a crusade against legal and political corruption in the city, and the editor derived the term shyster from the German word scheisse, meaning “excrement.”
There are several reasons for the anti-Semitic confusion, including the closeness to Shakespeare’s Shylock and belief that the term came from the proper name of Scheuster, who some think was a corrupt lawyer. The etymology of the word indicates it was never intended as a racial slur, and that it was applied derogatorily to lawyers in general and not to any single ethnic group.