What To Do With Racist Origins

I recently read an article about expressions with racist origins, which said:

  • Peanut Gallery was a segregation-era term for the seating area for blacks in a theater. Wikipedia says “A peanut gallery was, in the days of vaudeville, a nickname for the cheapest (and ostensibly rowdiest) seats in the theater, the occupants of which were often known to heckle” and throw the cheap snack – peanuts – at actors. It says the popular comic strip Peanuts was named for this phrase. While Wikipedia doesn’t specifically mention a racial origin, todayifoundout says experts disagree on whether the phrase referred to race or economic class. I suspect the two overlap a great deal.
  • Sold Me Down the River referred to selling disruptive slaves deeper into the South where conditions were harder. NPR agrees, citing one writer who called such a sale a death sentience. Phrase Finder adds a literal use in print is in The Ohio Repository, May 1837; and the figurative meaning of betrayal by P. G. Wodehouse’s Small Bachelor, 1927.
  • Gypped, meaning cheated, referred to the supposed dishonesty of Romani (a ethnicity originating in India), called gypsies in Europe. NPR quotes the1899 Century Dictionary as tying the word to gypsies. Worldwidewords acknowledges the possibility but notes the word seems to have originated in America, where gypsies were few. “It may equally well come from the obsolete gippo, a menial kitchen servant; this once meant a man’s short tunic, from the obsolete French jupeau.”

I wonder if origins matter
If I want to communicate with people around me, I need to use words they understand. If I use the word “gyp,” launching into a monologue on why taking offense is ignorant sounds, well, offensive.

This isn’t “political correctness” to me. Words and symbols mean what the people you’re talking to think they mean. It may be a chore to stay current with the latest usage, but I don’t want to be a jerk.

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