This football season the Washington Redskins have once again been urged to change their name. Although the team name is generally recognized to be a racial slur, the owner has thus far refused to replace it.
In 2011 it surfaced that Texas Gov. Rick Perry leased property at a camp commonly called “Niggerhead,” of all things. The rock bearing the epithet was painted over, but the name lingers.
Both “redskin” and “niggerhead” are relics of a time when popular white society found racial slurs acceptable. Names like these tend to stay around because people are used to them and no longer question their origins. Such an attitude is problematic, however, because when offensive phrases become a part of our daily language we lose our sensitivity to the often deplorable history behind them.
Here are three such phrases you may be using:
gypped: This word, derived from Gypsy, is used to mean “cheated” or “swindled.” Gypsies were often accused of cheating their customers.
mumbo-jumbo: Although used today to mean “gobbledygook” or “nonsense,” this phrase originally referred to the religious practices of certain African tribes, which whites dismissed as strange and illegitimate.
off the reservation: This phrase was once used to describe Native Americans who left the reservation created for them by the US government with the intention of making trouble. It’s used today to describe someone who has gone his or her own way on something, usually doing something outlandish or unconventional.
Considering the origins of these phrases, I recommend avoiding them in speech and writing. Although there has been a lot of talk lately about the evolution of language and that we should not stifle the changing meanings of words, sometimes respect for the historical background of a word is in order. When another word or phrase can easily replace an offensive one, it only makes sense to make the change.
Like this blog? Look for Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, coming Fall 2014!