Etymology from MTV
Posted: 26 June 2018 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  541
Joined  2007-02-13

I ran across this video claiming that six common phrases have racist origins.

The phrases are:
“No can do”
“Long time no see”
“Peanut gallery”
“Hip, hip hooray”
“Sold down the river”

I’m pretty sure they’re wrong about “peanut gallery” and “hip, hip hooray” and right about “gyp” (which all appear in The Big List).  Not so sure about the remaining three.  Perhaps they might make good additions to TBL.

Posted: 26 June 2018 04:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Total Posts:  3118
Joined  2007-01-30

From OED

Long time no see

l. colloq. (orig. U.S.). long time no see: (used as a greeting) ‘it is a long time since we last saw each other’.
In early use in representations of North American Indian speech.

[Apparently < Chinese Pidgin English, after Chinese hǎojiǔ bú jiàn ( < hǎojĭu long (time), lit. ‘good long (time)’ + bù not, no + jiàn to see, meet) and (with a different word for ‘not’) hǎojĭu méi jiàn .

A North American Indian origin is unlikely, as isolating constructions of this kind do not normally occur in the agglutinating languages of North America; quot. 1894 appears to reflect indiscriminate attribution of a nonstandard expression to a non-native speaker of English.


no can do, phr.

Origin: A borrowing from Chinese, combined with an English element. Etymons: English no can do, Chinese bùkěyǐ.

1868 W. Chanter Nautch Girl xix. 77 ‘Lay aloft there, you feller, and lash up that head rope to the yard, sabe!’ said the boatswain Speed to a Chinese… ‘No can do,’ was the response.

P5. down the river.

Always with negative connotations except with reference to cards: see Phrases 7 and sense 8a.
a. U.S. to go down the river.

(a) (Of a slave) (to be sold and) conveyed to a plantation on the lower Mississippi (see Phrases 5b(a)). Now hist. and rare.

(a) U.S. To sell (a slave), esp. one regarded as a troublemaker, to a plantation on the lower Mississippi, typically regarded as providing the harshest conditions for labour; (also occasionally in extended use) to deliver (oneself) into servitude or subjugation. Now hist. except in extended use.

1836 Afr. Repository Oct. 321 Suppose it be enacted that after the year 1840 slavery shall cease to exist in Kentucky. What would follow? All who chose would sell their slaves down the river; the benevolent would free them, and send them away, or let them remain, as they thought best

And yes, they’re wrong about peanut gallery and hip hip hooray, probably right about gyp.

[ Edited: 26 June 2018 04:15 PM by aldiboronti ]
Posted: 27 June 2018 05:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Total Posts:  6581
Joined  2007-01-03

The video, which I’ve seen before and we may have talked about, exhibits a basic misunderstanding of what constitutes a slur. And it’s dead wrong on peanut gallery and hip hip hooray. Those are not the least bit racist either in their origin or history of use.

And I would add the term cotton-picking to the list, since a US TV journalist got in hot water for using the term this past week. (It’s on the Big List, but I need to update it.)

Just as a word’s origin does not determine it’s meaning, it also does not determine whether or not it is a slur in current usage. What determines whether or not a term is racist is 1) the intent of the speaker, and 2) how the listener receives it. In cases where a phrase is widely understood to give offense, #1 doesn’t matter. The speaker should know better. Likewise, just because an individual or small group decides to take offense at a certain term doesn’t make it racist; it must be widely understood as giving offense. This last is what’s going on with peanut gallery and hip hip hooray.

A word like gypsy has a problematic origin and history of derogatory uses, and the verb to gyp is widely understood to derive from it. So it’s difficult for a speaker to claim they didn’t intend offense when it is taken. And the Romani do take offense at its use. So it’s definitely a racist term.

Phrases like no can do or long time no see have racist origins, but they’ve long been divorced from those. There is no history, at least in recent years, of these being used or understood as a racial slur. Now, if a white person squinted and said no can do in a faux Asian accent, that would absolutely be racist. But someone just using the phrase in casual conversation, divorced from any racial context is not engaging in any form of racism.

Phrases like sell down the river or cotton-picking are widely understood to have racial implications in both origin and use over the years. So their use is at best problematic, and when directed at a black person is unequivocally racist.

But another term, grandfather clause, which has its origins in Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised blacks because the law said that in order to vote one’s grandfather must have had the right to vote, is perceived by virtually no one as racist. It has its origin in a racist practice, but its history of use and its reception over the years makes it acceptable to use in pretty much any situation.

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