Chances are, you’ve used at least one of these in casual conversation without knowing its problematic past.
It can be a jarring experience to learn a common word or phrase you’ve been using for years is actually kind of racist or sexist or homophobic. The harder you look, the more language you’ll find with problematic roots. While English certainly has its fair share of racist words and phrases, it also has a baffling number of synonyms and alternative ways of saying something. Fortunately, that makes it pretty easy to swap out the word or phrase you’ve been saying for a more innocuous one.
This list comprises a handful of historically racist words and phrases with sinister origins, but we found these to be some of the most commonly used, and in some cases most surprising, examples. For each entry, we’ve included alternative words or phrases you can swap them out with.
11 Common Racist Words And Phrases
Meaning: defrauded, swindled, cheated
Origin: “Gypped” (sometimes spelled “jipped”) comes from the word “Gypsy,” which is a derogatory name for the Romani people (also known as the Roma). The Roma originated in northern India and migrated around the world, particularly in Europe, over the course of the last 1,500 years. They’ve faced a lot of persecution and discrimination throughout history, including baseless accusations of theft and child abduction. A stereotype arose that the Roma were thieves, which led to the use of the term “gypped.”
What to say instead: ripped off, cheated
2. Off The Reservation
Meaning: to deviate from what is expected or customary
Origin: In the 1800s, the federal government forcibly removed Native Americans from their land and sent them to live in designated reservations. The phrase “off the reservation” was used in government correspondence to report on whether Native Americans were complying with orders to stay within their designated living areas. Over time, it came to be used to describe anyone acting outside of what is expected, particularly in political situations.
What to say instead: “went rogue”
3. Sold Down The River
Origin: As far as racist words and phrases go, this one is pretty obvious when you think about it. It’s a reference to slaves being literally sold down the river (the Mississippi or the Ohio rivers, specifically) from a slave-trading marketplace to another shore, where they would then be transported to a plantation.
What to say instead: betrayed, thrown under the bus
4. Peanut Gallery
Meaning: a group of people who criticize or heckle someone about insignificant things
Origin: In the 19th-century Vaudeville era, the peanut gallery was the cheapest section of seats (with the worst view). Peanuts were sold at these shows, and sometimes people seated in the cheaper seats would throw peanuts at unpopular performers. Often, the peanut gallery was largely occupied by Black theatergoers. If the term isn’t racist, it’s classist at the very least, suggesting those who sat in the cheapest section were ill-informed and gave unwarranted criticism. And Vaudeville itself certainly had some racist elements — it developed from minstrel shows and often featured caricatures of Black people portrayed by white actors in blackface.
What to say instead: hecklers
5. Spirit Animal
Meaning: an animal, person or object you identify strongly with
Origin: Using “spirit animal” to refer to something you love or identify with is a form of cultural appropriation that cheapens its true meaning. Some Native American tribes believe in “spirit animals” or “totems,” which are spirits that guide and protect them on a journey or in their life in general. Now, many people who are not Native American and usually know nothing about this spiritual tradition call various people, animals and objects their “spirit animals,” often as determined by an online quiz or a general interest.
What to say instead: Patronus (from Harry Potter), familiar (from European folklore)
Meaning: arrogant, self-important
Origin: While technically its origin was pretty neutral — its first known usage was in the collection of Black American folktales (featuring the well-known Br’er Rabbit) Uncle Remus in 1880 — over the years, “uppity” has become a racist term. White Southerners used “uppity” throughout modern history to describe Black people who violated their expectations of deference, or who they viewed as “not knowing their place.” In these situations, “uppity” was usually followed by the n-word. Even recently, conservative critics have referred to President Obama and Michelle Obama as “uppity.”
What to say instead: arrogant, conceited
7. Hip Hip Hooray!
Meaning: a congratulatory cheer
Origin: The history of this term is a bit muddled, but it’s thought to have derived from the anti-Semitic chant “Hep hep!”. This was a rallying cry to attack Jewish people in and around the German Confederacy in 1819, during what came to be known as the “Hep-Hep riots.” At some point, “hep hep” became “hip hip,” and “hooray” was added to the end.
What to say instead: “Hooray!” (only the “hip hip” part is problematic), “Yay!”
8. Eenie Meenie Miney Mo
Meaning: children’s rhyme, often used to make a “random” selection
Origin: While its earliest origins are unclear, this rhyme was well-known in the days of slavery in the United States. You’re probably familiar with the version that goes, “Eenie meenie miney mo / Catch a tiger by the toe,” but in a previous version of the song, the n-word was used instead of “tiger.” It’s thought that this was sung to describe what slave owners would do if they caught a runaway.
What to say instead: Flip a coin. Ask a friend. Just make a decision without singing.
9. Long Time, No See
Meaning: I haven’t seen you in a while
Origin: There are two credible theories about where this phrase originated, and both could very well be true. One is that members of the British and American Navies picked up the phrase in their encounters with Chinese people, speaking pidgin English. The other theory says “long time, no see” came from Native Americans speaking English, as chronicled in some old Western novels. Either way, the phrase can be seen as mimicking non-native English speakers’ attempts to speak English. The same goes for another common racist phrase: “No can do.”
What to say instead: “It’s been a while,” “I haven’t seen you in ages!”
10. Grandfathered In
Meaning: when people or companies are allowed to continue following an existing set of rules, even after new rules are put in place
Origin: Even after the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, giving Black American men the right to vote, a number of states instituted poll taxes and literacy tests to make voting more difficult for Black people. This was a way around an outright ban on Black voting, which had become illegal. But several states passed a law, known as “the grandfather clause,” saying that if you could vote before the 15th Amendment was passed or were the lineal descendant of a voter, you didn’t have to take the tests or pay the poll tax. In other words, if you were white, you were “grandfathered in” to being allowed to vote.
What to say instead: exempted, excused, legacied in
Meaning: a stupid person
Origin: This word was originally coined by eugenicist and psychologist Henry H. Goddard, who used it to describe people he categorized as having low intelligence and behavioral deviance. Eugenics had to do with creating humans with “desirable” characteristics through breeding and preventing those with “undesirable” traits from reproducing. Goddard made it his mission to ensure “feeble-minded morons” did not immigrate to the United States, sending his staff to assess the “intelligence” of people coming into Ellis Island in the early 20th century. About 40 percent of Hungarian, Italian and Jewish immigrants were classified as “morons” and deported in 1913.
What to say instead: fool, doofus, nitwit