Phrases you didn’t know were racist

These commonly-used expressions may seem innocent in Australia. But their origins are surprisingly sinister.
These commonly-used expressions may seem innocent in Australia. But their origins are surprisingly sinister. 

“Oh my God, hey!” you exclaim. “Long time no see!”

Sound like an accurate day-to-day scenario? Well we’ve got news for you. You’re a racist. A dirty, filthy racist. Hang your head in shame.

In all seriousness, there’s a ton of colloquial words and phrases with surprisingly sinister origins.

Here’s a quick rundown for you:


Meaning: “Hey, it’s been a while since I last you!”

Origin: In the early 1900s, this phrase was used to mock immigrants who spoke English as a second language. In particular, it was used as a way to mock the Chinese language, given the words are derived from Chinese pidgin English, in accordance with the language’s sentence structure. [Editor’s Note: And we Americans thought it came from “Native Americans greeting someone in a movie or TV episode”…!]


Meaning: Sorry, I won’t be able to do that.

Origin: According to the Oxford Dictionary, this phrase is also an imitation of Chinese pidgin English. The phrase dates back to around the same time period, when racist western attitudes towards the Chinese would present themselves in mocking speech imitations.


Meaning: To be cheated or taken advantage of in some way.

Origin: The word is derived from the word “gypsy”, which in itself is seen as a derogatory term to describe the Romani people, or people from Eastern Europe more broadly. According to NPR, the term was derived from “the popular experience with thieving Gypsies”.


Meaning: Damn it!

Origin: This word’s roots are traced to Bulgarians and anal sex. “Bulgarus” was a name given to a sect of heretics believed to have come from Bulgaria in the 11th century. Over time and through various languages, this was later shortened to “Bugger”. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.


Meaning: A North American term referring to any clause that “exempts certain classes of people from the requirements of a law affecting their rights, privileges or practices”.

Origin: The Grandfather Clause was a statute enacted in many states in the Deep South allowing prospective white voters to evade sitting literacy tests and other tactics designed to stop southern blacks from voting and having other rights similar to white people.

Meaning: Someone who acts highbrow and thinks they’re better than other people.

Origin: During segregation, people in the Deep South used this term to describe black people who acted above their “rightful” socio-economic place.


Meaning: A police car, typically one with a large trunk at the back for escorting criminals.

Origin: “Paddy” originated in the 1930s as a short version of “Patrick”, and then as a generic slur for any Irishman. “Wagon”, of course, refers to a vehicle. “Paddy wagon” – which combines the two – was used to contribute to the perception that Irishmen were constantly arrested for being drunk, rowdy and violent.


Meaning: An old children’s nursery rhyme.

Origin: Any Australian would know this old nursery rhyme – “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Catch a tiger by the toe. If he squeals, let him go. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” But what you may not know is that the original word used in place of tiger was the N-word, which almost everybody – give or take a shock jock radio host – view as deeply offensive.


Meaning: A generic term for confusing or meaningless language.

Origin: Historians and etymologists often trace this phrase back to the Mandinka word “Maamajomboo”, which refers to a masked male dancer who would take part in religious ceremonies. According to the Oxford English Dictionary: “Mumbo Jumbo is a noun and is the name of a grotesque idol said to have been worshipped by some tribes. In its figurative sense, Mumbo Jumbo is an object of senseless veneration or a meaningless ritual.”

According to The Sun, British explorers of the 1730s were terrified of “Mumbo Jumbo”, as they called him, and found his speech and movements confusing.


Meaning: A game in which a message is passed along in whispers, often distorted between the start and finish.

Origin: The notion of “Chinese whispers” stems from a racist idea in the 1800s that Chinese people spoke in a way that was deliberately unintelligible. It associates the Chinese language with “confusion” and “incomprehensibility”. Now, the game is more commonly referred to as “the telephone game” in the United States.


Meaning: A general feeling of lethargy or sleepiness.

Origin: According to Mic, the phrase “The Itis” actually originates from the word “n***eritis”, which was used in the US to reinforce the stereotype that people of African descent were lazy and didn’t enjoy working.


Meaning: A basic rule.

Origin: This one isn’t about race, but it’s still pretty sinister. According to the Telegraph, the phrase dates back to 1886, when Sir Francis Buller ruled that a man could beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Hence “rule of thumb”.

American author William Safire disputed this story, writing in the New York Times that it actually dated back to 1692, in which Sir William Hope, in “The Compleat Fencing Master”, wrote: “What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art.”


Meaning: A negative connotation used ironically to refer to caving into peer pressure or persuasion.

Origin: The phrase dates back to the 1978 Jonestown deaths, in which hundreds of members of a cult committed suicide together by drinking poison mixed with Kool-Aid, a brand of flavoured drink mix. (Another exemption to the race-based rules, but still too creepy not to list.)


Now one could argue that intent plays a part in all this.

You’re not at fault if you didn’t know “Bugger” had racist and homophobic origins, unless … well … you really were intending it to be a slur against 900-year-old Bulgarian sodomites.

But hey, you learn something new every day.

Now for the love of God, don’t flock into my mentions barking about “PERLERTIKAL CERRERCTNESS GONE MERE”. I’m just the messenger.

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