Language is a weird, ephemeral thing. Not only do words morph as new context (cultural or social or political) builds up around them, they also form new dialects when the people who speak them move from place to place, and when chosen carefully, they’re dense with nuance. Words gather meaning like Velcro collects lint—it sticks fast and doesn’t let go, and when you pull at it, you just make a bigger mess.
Whoever said, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” couldn’t have been more wrong. The greatest orators understand that words evoke powerful emotions… and emotions drive action. It stands to reason, then, that we should know what we’re saying when we say it. The problem is this: a lot of people literally don’t have enough time in their day to do everything they have to do, much less spend time researching the meaning behind the words and phrases they use without thinking. So, to save you some time, we’ve put a list together of 5 commonly used words and phrases with totally offensive origins.
We’ll start with an easy one. Over the last few years, “savage” has become a flippant, trendy way of calling someone ruthless or bold. But just a couple of generations ago, this same word was commonly used to paint a horribly negative and inaccurate picture of Indigenous people.
Consciously or not, the word was used to dehumanize Indigenous folks, and this dehumanization led to the justification of policies and attitudes that made residential schools and Edward Cornwallis’s Scalping Proclamation possible. Now “savage” gets tossed around without a second thought, but there are plenty of people who still remember how it was used, and how that usage has hurt them.
Usually used by people who are thinking too hard about what to call white people, this word has some incredibly offensive origins reaching all the way back to the 1700s. That’s when a German philosopher named Christoph Meiners decided to place all of humanity into two categories: Caucasians and Mongolians. In his Outline of the History of Humanity, referring to the people he categorized as “the Mongolians,” he wrote, “the latter is not only much weaker in body and spirit, but much worse in its ways and devoid of virtue compared to the Caucasian.”
A little later, he goes on to say that these characteristics explain why “certain nations were always rulers and others servants, why the goddess of freedom lives in such tight boundaries, and why the terrible despotism sits on an unshakable throne among the nations of the world, why the European nations separate themselves so much from the wildness and barbarity of others in their greater virtue, their openness towards discovery, their constitutions, laws, art of war, and their behaviour towards their wives, slaves, and enemies.”
This guy was pretty much the definition of a white supremacist, so let’s stop using his word.
Sorry Canada. This one’s picked up some racist context over the years, too. Most people assume that the word became a nickname for Canadians simply because the first syllables of both “Canuck” and “Canada” are the same. But the roots of “Canuck” actually lead back to Hawaii—where the word “kanaka” means “man.”
The word didn’t pick up its more negative context until it made its way to North America. As for how it got here, professor Mark Sundaram theorizes that, “it either got spread along the fur trade route, carried back and passed through French — canaque — and eventually became Canuck” or “some of these sailors joined whaling ships and Canuck got carried to New England.” At that time, New Englanders used it as an ethnic slur, to insult French Canadians.
This phrase, of course, is used to describe a task that’s easy to do. It’s also the name of the children’s game that’s been played at pretty much every school fundraiser ever. But the game can actually be traced back to the Southern U.S. plantations.
The Smithsonian website describes the original cakewalk as a “grand-promenade type of dance, where couples would take turns performing. The couple with the best dancing skills would then ‘take the cake.’”As they danced, the performers would adopt and exaggerate the mannerisms of the “slave owners.” It was, essentially, a subversive way for the dancers to hit back, just a little.
Later, the cakewalk became a regular feature in minstrel shows, racist performances by white people in blackface. In this case, though, the cakewalk was twisted into a mocking depiction of African Americans trying (and failing) to fit into the elite society of the time.
Even later, the game was “taken back” and absorbed by ragtime culture. In that same Smithsonian article, ragtime historian Terry Waldo is quoted as saying, “the dance became about ‘Blacks imitating whites who were imitating Blacks who were imitating whites.’”
With this long and loaded history, both “it’s a cakewalk” or “that takes the cake” definitely deserve some pre-usage contemplation.
The problem is less the hooray and much, much more the “hip hip,” which has history in the German Hep Hep Riots that started in Würzburg on August 2, 1819 and raged through a number of other cities including Bamberg, Bayreuth, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Hamburg over the next couple of months. The Riots were a reaction to the progress of Jewish Emancipation, when German Jews finally started to gain equal status in some parts of the country.
During this time, mobs of people took to the streets, attacking and sometimes killing Jewish people, and looting and damaging their homes and properties. All the while, they shouted “hep hep,” which was used as a rallying cry.
There are a couple of different theories as to where the “hep hep” came from before all this, but no matter what came before, this particular piece of history alone is enough to make you pause.