Racist and Offensive Words and Phrases

By: Anna Pekrul, BSW Candidate, Kovir LLC Intern

            The other day while speaking to my professor in SWRK 451: Social Work Practice with People of Color, I used the phrase “grandfathered in” when asking about previous MSW licensure requirements. While the term today has come to reflect when a person or company is exempt from following new laws or regulations, the original context reveals just one of the ways in which White Americans disenfranchised former enslaved Black Americans. In case you were not familiar, the phrase largely refers to the “grandfather clauses” instituted by several Southern states during the Reconstruction Era. Under the grandfather clause(s), people who were able to vote prior to 1867, or were the lineal descendant of someone who could, were exempt from the literacy tests, property requirements, or poll taxes that were now required for voting (Andrew & Kaur, 2020). The grandfather clause protected poor white Southerners who might not pass the literacy tests by giving them automatic enfranchisement rights based on there lineage. My professor did not say anything about my use of the phrase, but as soon as the words left my mouth I realized my mistake. I had learned about the origins of this phrase years ago, yet it still slipped its way into my vocabulary because at that moment it filled the linguistic hole I needed to fill. We all need to be more careful about the language we use, and find replacements for the offensive words and phrases that we commonly use. Below is a list of such words and phrases. Some you may know, and others you may not. Either way, it is time we move on and do better.

Master Bedroom:

Master bedroom is usually the term people use to describe the largest bedroom in the house. According to Zillow, 42% of current listings use the term “master” in reference to a bedroom or bathroom (Andrew & Kaur, 2020). While it is unclear whether the term is rooted in American Slavery, it still can elicit memories of that history.

Instead, say “primary bedroom” or “primary bathroom”

Peanut Gallery:

Today, “peanut gallery” is often used to describe a person(s) who criticize or heckle someone else, often by focusing on insignificant details. However, during the Vaudeville era, the peanut gallery referred to the worst and often cheapest section in the theater, where Black people were required to sit (Eubanks, 2020).

Instead, say “hecklers”


People today use “cakewalk” to describe something that is straightforward or can be completed with ease. In pre-Civil War America, the cakewalk was a dance performed by enslaved African Americans on plantations. During these events, also referred to as “prize walks”, enslaved couples would perform a highly elaborate dance for the Plantation owners, who served as judges. The prize for the winners was a highly ornamented cake, meaning, the winners would literally “take the cake”. In the 1870s, cakewalks became a popular hallmark of minstrel shows, and the phrase took off in usage as a way to illustrate something that was easy to accomplish. This is somewhat ironic because winning a cakewalk competition was not easy, “Rather, it was because the dance steps were fluid and graceful. Hard work by the dancers gave the impression of ease” (Gandhi, 2013).

Instead, say “breeze” or “child’s play”


While “uppity” is used today to describe someone who might be arrogant, snobbish, or have a superiority complex, the term actually has racist connotations. During the Jim Crow era, White people used the word to describe Black people who “…weren’t showing them enough deference” (Andrew & Kaur, 2020), or “…didn’t know their place” (Nittle, 2020). However, it goes father than that as many Black men and women were lynched by White mobs for being too “uppity”. 

Instead, say “arrogant” or “conceited”

Sold Down the River:

Today, to  sell (one) down the river means to betray or cheat someone to a huge degree. The phrase originates from the time when enslaved African Americans were sold, separated from their families, and transported on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to cotton plantations further south. According to one journalist, “The treat of being ‘sold down the river’ was seen as tantamount to a death sentence” (Wong, 2020).

Instead, say “betrayed” or “thrown under the bus”

Gyp, Gypped, Jip, or Jipped:

When someone says they got “gypped” or “jipped”, they usually mean they were cheated, swindled, shortchanged, or conned. This phrase is connected to the word “Gypsy”, which was (and is) a racial slur for the Roma people. The Romani are descendants of Northern India who have been forced into a nomadic lifestyle for centuries due to marginalization and threats of violence. The G slur was used to perpetuate stereotypes that Roma people were “‘thieves, rowdies, dirty, immoral, con-men, asocials, and work-shy’” (Isacc, 2019).

Instead, use “ripped off” or “cheated”

Off the Reservation:

For many, to go “off the reservation” means to act crazy, or to deviate from what is considered normal or expected. However, this phrase originates from the time when Native Americans were restricted from leaving the reservations created for them by the U.S. government, “…and their freedom was severely limited by the terms of the treaties they were often forced to sign” (Malesky, 2014)

Instead, say “went rogue”

No Can Do and Long Time No See:

These phrases are often used innocently enough. You run into a friend you haven’t seen in a minute; “Long time no see”. Your boss asks you to complete a task at the end of the workday; “No can do, boss”. Yet, the origins of these phrases are less innocent. “No can do” emerged in the 19th Century as a way to mock the English speech patterns of Chinese immigrants. The same can be said for “long time no see”, although there is some debate this phrase was used to mimic the speech patterns of Native Americans, rather than Chinese immigrants (Wong, 2020).

Instead, say “I can’t do that” or “it’s been a while”

Blacklist, Blackmark, Black Sheep, etc:

The issue here is that all of these words have negative meanings. In business, a blacklist list of companies, organizations, or people that either have a bad reputation, have done something illegal, or are who the organization doesn’t want to do business with. A blackmark is an unfavorable item in one’s record. The black sheep of the family is the one who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest. One article, which studied racist language in the medical field, found 120 synonyms for the word “blackness”. Of that 120, half of them were “distinctly negative, with none being positive” (Cicchiello, 2020). In comparison, there were 134 synonyms for “whiteness”, and only 10 of them were negative. When we use “black” to describe things that are bad (even if its not race related) it “…connotes evil, distrust, lack of intelligence, ignorance, a lack [of] beauty – the absence of white” (Hwang, 2021)

Instead, say “boycott”, “steer clear of”, “ostracized”, or “censure”, or “odd ball”, “outcast”

Basket Case:

“Basket case” is often used to characterize someone who is incapacitated by severe anxiety or emotional instability, or who is a social outcast. The origin of the term actually goes back to the end of World War Ⅰ, when rumors spread about “…soldiers who had lost all of their limbs and had to be transported in a basket” (Curzan & Kruth, 2019). After World War Ⅱ, the phrase transitioned to mean someone who was worthless or unproductive. Using this phrase today is ableist and disrespectful of people with mental health troubles.

Low Hanging Fruit:

From a business prospective calling something “low hanging fruit” often means it can be easily accomplished, yields low risks and high returns, or is a no-brainer. While this phrase is not inherently racist, for some, it may bring about memories of lynchings. In 1937, Billie Holiday performed the song “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meerpool. The first few lines of the song go like this: “Southern trees bearing a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”  (Austin Community College, n.d.). Even though “low hanging fruit” is not directly connected to lynchings, it is important for us to “‘…be more sensitive to what we say because seemingly innocuous phrases can conjure up very different meanings for some’” (Rubel, 2020)


Andrew, S., & Kaur, H. (2020, July 7). Everyday words and phrases that have racist connotations. CNN. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/06/us/racism-words-phrases-slavery-trnd/index.html

Cicchiello, C. (2020, July 24). 11 everyday words and phrases that have racist and offensive backgrounds. TODAY.com. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.today.com/tmrw/everyday-words-phrases-racist-offensive-backgrounds-t187422

Cruzan, A., & Kruth, R. (2019, January 10). The dark origin of “Basket case”. Michigan Radio. Retrieved March 24, 2022, from https://www.michiganradio.org/arts-culture/2019-01-06/the-dark-origin-of-basket-case

Eubanks, O. (2020). Here are some commonly used terms that actually have racist origins. ABC News. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/commonly-terms-racist-origins/story?id=71840410

Gandhi, L. (2013, December 23). The extraordinary story of why a ‘cakewalk’ wasn’t always easy. NPR. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/12/23/256566647/the-extraordinary-story-of-why-a-cakewalk-wasnt-always-easy

Hwang, P. (2021, November 30). Words and phrases you may want to think twice about using. CBC News. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/words-and-phrases-commonly-used-offensive-english-language-1.6252274

Isacc, B. (2020, June 7). 10 common phrases that are actually racist af. Upworthy. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.upworthy.com/10-common-phrases-that-are-actually-racist-af

Malesky, K. (2014, June 29). Should saying someone is ‘off the reservation’ be off-limits? NPR. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/06/29/326690947/should-saying-someone-is-off-the-reservation-be-off-limits

Nittle, N. (2020, December 12). Terms you might not know are racist. ThoughtCo. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.thoughtco.com/terms-many-dont-know-are-racist-2834522

Rubel, G. (2020). Racist language and origins I didn’t always know. JD Supra. Retrieved March 24, 2022, from https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/racist-language-and-origins-i-didn-t-35616/

“Strange fruit” lyrics. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2022, from https://www.austincc.edu/dlauderb/1302/Lyrics/StrangeFruitLyrics1937.htm

Wong, B. (2020, July 8). 12 common words and phrases with racist origins or connotations. HuffPost. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/common-words-phrases-racist-origins-connotations_l_5efcfb63c5b6ca9709188c83