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Grammar Police Monday – Politically Incorrect

I’m going to break one of my own blogging rules and address a topic that has the potential to be inciting and controversial—common sayings that are potentially offensive. Therefore, let me begin this post by making it clear that I am discussing the following phrases and terms with the sole intent of making people aware of their origins. I mean no disrespect.

You youngsters out there probably don’t encounter this problem, but those of us who grew up in less-politically-correct times often heard phrases in everyday speech that nowadays are considered inappropriate. As I transitioned into adulthood and society changed around me, I began to discover many of the colloquialisms I used quite innocently had origins rooted in racism and stereotypes.

I tend to translate slang phrases directly to their contextual meaning without considering the individual words. For example, I grew up thinking jew someone down simply meant to haggle until the seller reduced the price, totally oblivious to the deeper implication—the stereotype that Jewish people are tightwads who are good at talking someone into selling something for less than the asking price.

The word gypped, though still widely used, has a similar origin. It refers to Gypsies, or Romani peoples, who are stereotyped as being thieves and con artists. When someone says they ‘got gypped,’ they are saying they were cheated or conned. The very term Gypsy is considered by many Romas to be derogatory.

Have you ever planted your fists on your hips and blurted to a friend or sibling that they are an Indian giver? (I have, and I’m part Cherokee. :P) This term refers to someone who gives gifts only to demand them back later, and it is considered by many to be a slanderous dig at the character of Native Americans.

I was surprised to discover while doing research for this post that the term cotton pickin’ (frequently used like the expletive damn around these parts) is considered offensive because it is so close to the term cotton picker, a racial slur referring to a person of African heritage. Whether it is offensive when used to modify someone of another ethnicity isn’t clear. At the very least, if you say My cotton pickin’ neighbor blew his leaves into my yard again, your neighbor had better not be black.

Next time you start to say or write one of these little expressions, consider the fact it might have a deeper meaning.

The purpose of this post, as I said before, is to make people aware of the origins of common colloquialisms and the wisdom of investigating them prior to use. I hope you found this lesson helpful and my attempt to present the topic in a non-offensive manner successful.


Feel free to comment, but please keep it considerate.
Thanks for visiting.


  1. I remember, when I was young, thinking the word 'gypped' had something to do with Egypt...where I ever got that idea, I have no clue...I just knew I didn't want to go there!

    A great posting about some sensitive (to some) matter :)

  2. Oh wow! This is intresting info, thanks for sharing!

  3. I agree with Mark, you did a great job of addressing a potentially sensitive subject. Thanks for the info.

  4. I've used the word "gypped" before but never new the origins until now. Yikes! Thanks for sharing this info with us Melissa, definitely something to be aware of.

  5. Well, that's a bunch of things I didn't know. And it is easier to make those mistakes when you are speaking a foreign language. You're less aware of the connotations some words may have because they don't sound so bad to you. I've heard some foreigners who speak Spanish and use words that are so NOT appropriate in a polite conversation. But they don't know the implications of those words. They learned them and it's easy for them to say those words. I'll be more careful now.

  6. Interesting how these phrases are working their way out of use. I haven't heard these for a long time.

  7. I knew the true origins of most of those, although the Indian Giver is ironic, because the white man is the one who gave land to them and then demanded it back.

  8. Some of these I knew, but not others. Thanks, Melissa!

  9. I've used the word "gyp" before, but thankfully figured out why it's offensive, although it took me longer than it did to know that "jewed" and "Indian giver" are wrong. "Cotton picking" is a new one, though. I'm glad you informed me.

  10. Melissa, I've heard those and a few other expressions still occasionally used and I always cringe. Yes, many of them have their roots in prejudices from former eras. It's good to know the context. Very good post.

  11. Thanks for keeping us informed! :)

  12. I knew about all of these except "gypped". Interesting to know.

  13. I didn't know about gypped either. But I might take some exception with cotton picking if only because there were a lot of cracker farmers who grew and picked cotton but didn't own slaves. I have ancestors who fought on the losing side of the civil war. Based upon the census for that time period, I have a feeling they were crackers. And that is probably a politically incorrect term, too. :D

  14. Lucky me, only cotton pickin' made it into my vocab, and I never use it. :-D

  15. Just because something has been around for a long time doesn't mean it's OK to say. I knew "gypped" but not its meaning. Thanks for the education!

  16. Just one cotton pickin' minute here...

    Believe it or not the adjective cotton-picking comes from Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes cartoons and is used as a general adjective of disapproval, similar to damned. From a 1952 cartoon:

    Get your cotton-pickin’ hooks offa me!

    Bugs may not have been the first to use it, but he gets credit for first recorded use.

    1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 491-92.

    Let's not confuse it with anything more sinister. It's like the word niggardly. That's a great word that has absolutely nothing to do with any form of a racial slur. And yet - people shy away from using it.

    The English language is complex enough without making it more than it is. My .02 worth.

  17. One that really shocked me was "Jap Oranges" the ones we were so excited to see at Christmas time, short for Japanese Oranges. When someone corrected me for saying this, I was so embarrassed because it never occurred to me that this was a racist slur. I thought I was just doing what everybody does, shortening the word. Today, I'm constantly watching what I say. And that's a good thing. For instance, until I stopped to consider my words, I had no idea how often I said, "Oops, excuse me, I was just having a blonde moment." To think, I used to think that was funny.


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