12 Surprisingly Offensive Words You Need to Stop Saying
Don’t throw around these seemingly innocent words and phrases that have horrible origins. These familiar terms derive from stereotypes, slurs, and bigotry, so wipe them from your vocabulary.
Even the ’80s 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. So think twice before you toss this uncompassionate term around. Check out these trendy words you probably don’t understand the true meaning of.
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.
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. Learn some surprising words that used to mean the complete opposite of what they do today.
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 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.
Rule of thumb
There’s a lot of controversy around the origins of this term. You know it to mean 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. Learn some words and phrases you should never say if you want to sound smart.
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.
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 they 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. Find out the origins of some more slang terms you hear all the time.
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.
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. Find out some things you should never, ever say at work.
In the early-twentieth 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. On the other hand, find out some words that used to be insults—but have turned into compliments.