Seven words you didn't know were racist


Ruby Hamad

Kaffir or makrut limes? The decision is yours...

Kaffir or makrut limes? The decision is yours...

Recently, one of my Facebook friends posted a status about makrut limes in which she referred to the unfamiliar moniker as the new "non-racist" name for kaffir limes, and is what they are called in...Wait, what? I thought. Kaffir lime is racist?

Turns out, the story is rather complicated (more on makruts later), but it got me wondering about what other common terms have sneakily racist origins. Now, I'm not talking about words like "uppity" and "thug" that have well known-racist connotations and we should all know better than to use (seriously, stop calling black people "thugs," you may as well say the n-word), but words that are now used in a context that has evolved from their original malicious usage but that, nonetheless, betray a more openly racist past.

Well, what I discovered is that there is no shortage of them. For as long as we've had language, it seems, we have used it solidify our connections to those within our own tribe and to perpetuate our contempt for those outside of it.  Here are just seven examples of humanity's fondness for racial slurs.

1. Kaffir Lime


As I stated above, this is actually more complicated than it first appears. "Kaffir" is indeed a horrible racist slur used by white colonists in South Africa to refer to the local black population.  Originating from the Arabic word for unbeliever or infidel (it's like Inception for derogatory terms), cookbook author and blogger Garrett McCord argues that this slur was behind the name given to the citrus fruit:

"Kaffir limes are bulgy, mottled, and supposedly not as pretty as the smooth and glossy skins of other varieties of lime such as the silver or Persian lime. From this was born the reference to the less aesthetically appearing lime as the "Kaffir lime.""

However, there is evidence that suggests the two terms developed independently. Slate's food editor L.V. Anderson writes:

"University of California researcher David Karp...and his colleague Cara De Silva have posited a different explanation for the name, speculating in 1998 in the food journal Petits Propos Culinaires, "Indian Muslims most likely encountered the fruit as an import from lands such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, where Buddhists and other non-Muslims predominated. ... From this Indian usage, intended to convey otherness and exotic provenance, the term passed into English." This theory suggests that the name's roots lie closer to the original Arabic meaning of kafir than to the 20th-century racial slur, although of course the term's potentially benign origins don't invalidate modern-day concerns about the word's offensiveness."

Now, I'm not so sure that the Arabic usage of "kafir" is as benign as Anderson claims, so I'm going to go ahead and suggest we all get on board the makrut lime train.

2. Peanut Gallery

This common term refers to unwelcome criticism from insignificant and ill-informed commentators. But how did such an odd-sounding phrase emerge? During segregation-era vaudeville shows, the peanut gallery was the cheap balcony section to which black patrons were restricted. But why peanuts? Well, the association between slaves and peanuts goes back to the earliest times of slavery. When the slaves were abducted and brought to the Americas, peanuts came with them. The association is particularly strong in the southern states where peanut plantations were common.

It also appears to be a reference to the cheap snacks that the occupants of the "peanut gallery," who were regarded to be rowdy and uncouth (surprise, surprise), would throw at unpopular performers. In his book Listening to America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past, Stuart Berg Flexner extends the metaphor, "(B)ecause peanut implied small size, it came to mean a small or insignificant person." 

So, we're all going to stop using this term now, right? Right.

3. Barbarian

Given that this term usually seems to get invoked when referring to violent acts committed by non-white people, it does perhaps betray its origins more readily than some of the others on this list. Think of it as a sort of younger, less overtly racist sibling of "savages." While today, "barbarian" is used to signify a particularly cruel and violent person, the original words dates all the way back to Ancient Greece and referred to anyone who didn't happen to speak the highly-civilised Greek language. Over time, members of other so-called "great" civilisations, namely the Roman Empire and Christianity also became exempt from this reference to the great unwashed. Sure it was a long time ago, and sure language is always evolving, but it goes to show just much old perceptions of cultural superiority persist.

4. Paddy Wagon

Wait, how can this be racist? It's just an innocuous term for a police car, right? Wrong. "Paddy" emerged as a pejorative for the Irish. The phrase "paddy wagon" was in use in the US by 1930, and referred to either the high number of Irish police officers or the supposedly high number of Irish men who found themselves traveling in the back of police cars. Either way, it wasn't a compliment.

5. Gyp

I think this one gets me more than any other on this list because it is one that I use all the time. I honestly have never thought to question its etymology. To get "gypped," of course, means to get ripped off.  As embarrassingly obviously as it is in hindsight, "gyp" almost certainly refers to Gypsy, the derogatory name given to the Eastern European Roma people, essentially categorising them as swindlers and frauds.

As if that's not enough, Gypsy itself is an ethnic slur (more Inception) likening Roma people to Egyptians, who, of course, are far less attractive than western Europeans. At least according to the sort of western Europeans who enjoy inventing racial slurs.

6. Bugger

This one has the double whammy of being racist and homophobic. While most of us would be familiar with what getting "'buggered" means, the noun "bugger" itself usually conjures up images of a cheeky, but lovable little rascal. It's real meaning, however, is far more specific. Stemming from the word "Bulgarian", it was a nasty term the medieval Catholic Church conjured up to refer to any member of the East Orthodox Church.  Because in the minds of religious fundamentalists, all heresy naturally involves sodomy. It's almost like they doth protest too much.

7. Sold Down The River

The origin of this common phrase, which today refers to being betrayed, is so literal it hurts.  In pre-civil war United States, slaves from the northern states would be "sold down the (Mississippi or Ohio) river" to the Southern plantations where conditions were infinitely worse.

Sorry, but there is no punch line to soften this one. I need a drink.