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10 Common Everyday English Phrases with Racist Origins

Although some of our wrongdoing may be in the past, it still carries with us. As it is becoming more and more evident, systemic racism is still well and alive today. Due to our history, there are many words in the English language that have racist origins, yet we still use them on an everyday basis. This is a list of some of them, so that we can become aware and make changes in our language to evolve it as we evolve.


Gypsy was a term used to refer to the Romani people, a group that has long been discriminated against in many parts of the world. Gypped means to be cheated or swindled. A practice to discriminate against the Romani people would be to accuse them of being thieves and even child kidnappers, creating a stereotype that the Romani people were thieves.

Peanut gallery

“Peanut gallery” originated as a term for the cheapest seats in a theater. In the segregated South, sometimes this was the only place black people were allowed to sit. Thus referring to the peanut gallery signified referring to black people.

Spirit Animal

This term is a popular one, but it originates from some Native American tribes who believe in spirits and totems that guide and protect them on their journeys. The use of the phrase by non-Native Americans is an example of cultural appropriation, because not all those who use this term know or respect its origins.


This term originates as a phrase used by white people to describe black people who had the audacity to pass their expectations, or not know their “correct” social position. This word has been used by American conservatives to describe Barack Obama and Michelle during their presidency.

Eenie meenie miney mo

The origin of this children’s rhyme used to be about catching runaway slaves. The following line “catch a tiger by the toe” used to include the n-word, until it phased into animal subjects in the 50’s. Very disturbing!


This term was created by eugenicist and psychologist Henry H. Goddard to classify “unintelligent” people whom he believed should not immigrate to the US. This classification was made on the belief of genetic superiority of certain races and ethnicities. This resulted in the deportation of nearly half of the Hungarian, Jewish and Italian immigrant population that arrived in 1913.


The use of “black” in front of any word, not just blacklist, adds the connotation of a disruption in purity. For example, phrases such as “black market,” and “blackball,” have very negative meanings. The use of the word black feeds into the idea that black is bad.

Long time no see/No can do

These phrases were used to mock the speech patterns of Chinese immigrants when they spoke English in the 19th century. “Long time no see” was also used to mock Native American speech patterns and inflection.


Marijuana, or cannabis, faced a name change that resulted in prejudice against Mexicans, to associate the “criminal” drug use with Mexicans. During the Mexican Revolution, many Mexicans immigrated to the US in 1910. The criminalization of the drug, caused by anti-immigrant fears in the southwest, resulted in this attempt to marginalize the population.

To call a spade a spade

This term has a Greek origin, and did not actually refer to playing cards. A spade was actually referring to a gardening tool. Originally, spade did not refer to black people at all. Spade in the saying “call a spade a spade” was a mistranslation of the ancient greek word “trough.” Yet in a later shift during the Harlem renaissance people began to refer to black people as “spades.” The connotation was that the word was derogatory towards black people. The origin of why that became so is uncertain, but it may have to do with the association to playing cards. The derogatory use of “spade” is also why using “to call a spade a spade” is frowned upon.

This post was written in collaboration with Backpack English provides language learning advice for the purpose of creating more global connections and cultural awareness.