Five Terms You Might Not Know Are Considered Racist

Rethink using words such as "gypped" and "cotton pickin'"

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Some casual expressions used in American English have racist origins. Take the expression "honest injun." In January 2010, then Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele used the colloquialism to assure voters that his party did not need a makeover to be more relevant. After Steele's remarks, the American Indian community reproached him for using a term that's functioned to denigrate Native peoples for decades.

Unfortunately, "honest injun" isn't the only term in popular use with dubious origins. Racist terms have been included in the American vocabulary for so long that many who use them are clueless about their offensive origins. If you'd rather your foot not end up in your mouth, find out what the offending expressions are and why to avoid them.

Cotton Pickin'

Circa 2010, not one, not two, but three people in the public eye were chided for using the term cotton pickin.' They are journalists Rick Sanchez, Julia Reed and Lou Dobbs. Whether this term is racist is up for debate in some circles. Defenders of the term argue that it's the equivalent of using a swear word such as "damn." But critics of the word say it's racist because it harkens back to the time when black slaves picked cotton. According to Urban Dictionary, the term "cotton picker" is indeed a racist slur used "to represent a black person, or person of African heritage."

So did Sanchez, Reed and Dobbs intend to be racist when they used the term? They deny any malicious intent, but it shouldn't be overlooked that each of these news people used the term in reference to African Americans. Both Sanchez and Reed said it while discussing President Barack Obama, and Dobbs used the term while discussing a speech former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made about race in America.

Given this, if you're fond of the term "cotton pickin'" and don't want to be accused of being a racist, refrain from uttering it when black people are the topic at hand.

Boy

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 slavery, 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 putdown, 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 "ruled on an appeal for the same case 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.

Indian Giver

When singer Jessica Simpson used the term "Indian giver" to deny that she planned to take back the boat she'd given her ex-boyfriend, she ignited a firestorm. That's because the term refers to someone who gives gifts only to demand them back later and is largely considered an indictment of the character of Native Americans.

"Most people flippantly use the comment 'Indian giver' without realizing its true meaning," Jacqueline L. Pata of the National Congress of American Indians told Us magazine. She also called the term "culturally insensitive to Native people."

Some argue, though, that the term doesn’t put down Natives but the Europeans who settled in America and reneged on the promises they’d made to the indigenous peoples they encountered. The debate over the word's etymology continues.

However, since many Native Americans do consider "Indian Giver" a culturally insensitive term, it’s best to set the term aside.

Gypped

"Gypped" is arguably the most commonly used racist term in existence today. If someone buys a used car that turns out to be lemon, for instance, he’s likely to complain, “I got gypped.” So, why is the term offensive? Because it equates the Gypsy, or Roma peoples, 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 British newspaper the Telegraph: “Gypped is an offensive word, it’s 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 or not to use the verb “gypped,” consider that Philip Durkin, principal etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary told the Telegraph that there’s “scholarly consensus” that the word originated as a “racial slur.”

Jew Down

While explaining why the term “gypped” is offensive to British paper the Telegraph, editor Jake Bowers compared use of the term to another offensive expression – “jewed.” Traditionally at flea markets and garage sales, pretty much any place where sales price is negotiable, it was common to hear references to someone “jewing down” the cost of something.

The term is offensive because it plays on the stereotype that Jewish people are tightwads who are so good at haggling they can sway someone into selling them something for less than the asking price. Today, it’s uncommon to hear younger people using the term, but the elderly may still use it, as it didn’t raise eyebrows in the past.