12 Everyday Phrases with Surprisingly Dark Origins
These seemingly innocent words and phrases are derived from stereotypes, slurs and bigotry—maybe it’s high time we all wipe them from our vocabulary.
Even the John Hughes classic The Breakfast Club uses the phrase “basket case” to describe Ally Sheedy’s social outcast character. The term actually comes from WWI slang, and refers to soldiers who were so seriously injured you could fit them in a basket.
Long time no see
You might think this is a cute thing to say to someone you haven’t seen for a while. It actually derives from the greeting of a Native American man talking to early settlers. Non-native English speakers, or anyone new to a language, will make these kinds of errors in syntax. “No can do” is a similar phrase that’s said to derive from Chinese “broken” English. Both are unkind phrases to use.
On the other hand, these slang words from the 1920s are worth bringing back!
You might say you got “gypped” if you get ripped off, but the term is said to refer to Gypsies. In that sense, the term derives from stereotyping this ethnic group as thieves and swindlers. Don’t use it.
Experts find the origins of the term “ghetto” to be particularly mysterious. Ghettos were the mandated locations for the ethnic segregation of Jews under the Nazi regime during WWII. In North America, the term became associated with poor areas with non-white residents. Now, it’s a bigoted term that gets tossed around to mean low-class.
Take note of these words that make you sound old.
Rule of thumb
There’s a lot of controversy around the origins of this term. While we currently use it to describe a generally accepted principle, it’s said to derive from laws in England and America dating back to the 1600s. These laws are said to have stated that a man could beat his wife with any stick no wider than his thumb. Hence, the rule of thumb. Scholars have searched but they can’t find any precise proof for this origin—but that doesn’t mean that domestic violence isn’t a problem.
You’re probably happy if you get “grandfathered in” to a clause on your cell phone plan that has extra value. The grandfather clause usually means you get the benefits of an earlier “generation.” However, the term originates with the practice of allowing voters in southern states easier voting conditions if they had a grandpa who had voted before 1867. Guess who didn’t have those relatives? Black voters, because their grandpas were slaves. This term refers to an ugly and unfair history in voter disenfranchisement that continues today.
Here are more words that mean the opposite of what you think.
This is the slang term used for a police van that picked up folks who got arrested. Paddy was a derogatory term for anyone Irish. And drawing on the stereotype that the Irish are drunkards and hooligans, “paddy wagon” referred to Irish guys getting into trouble with the law. Ethnic stereotypes, like all Irish people are drunks, aren’t cool.
Sold down the river
If you say you were “sold down the river,” you mean that someone betrayed you. That isn’t a very enlightened way to express that sentiment because it derives from America’s history of slavery. Slaves were sold “down river” as punishment where they would experience harsher conditions—and be separated from family and loved ones. Nothing compares to such dehumanizing anguish, so don’t equate your suffering to that of slaves.
You’ll never look at these common palindromes the same way again.
The word hysterical derives from the Greek word for uterus. It usually gets tossed around as a description for emotional women and feeds into the sexist stereotype that women are “naturally” crazy. (Male) doctors had a bunch of weird ideas about the biology of women that they used to rationalize sexist beliefs. These ideas still have influence today, but when it comes to gender, the unscientific advice from centuries ago doesn’t apply.
In the early-20th century, “moron” was the term given to folks with a learning disability. The term originates as a word meaning “stupid” in ancient Greek. Its history is cruel, so stay away from tossing this around.
Eenie Meenie Miney Mo
You may think “Eenie Meenie” is an innocent children’s rhyme to help kids count off or to choose someone to be “it.” You’ve probably even recited the little verse yourself numerous times. “Catch a tiger by the toe” seems harmless… until you find out that “tiger” is a fairly recent replacement for the original term. Which was the N-word. Your kids aren’t aware of this ominous history, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not troubling.
“Imbecile” derives from the Latin term for weak. That is, it refers to just the type of people who need society’s compassion and care. Instead, the term was chosen by psychologists for people with cognitive disabilities. Now, it’s thrown around to mean stupid. It’s a bullying term, and we need to work to end rampant bullying.
Next, steer clear of these Canadian insults.