Would you use an expression if you knew its origin was racist?
The answer to this question is obvious—at first blush. Let me give you three examples to show you how it is more complicated.
I started thinking about this question when some colleagues told me about the origin of the following expression:
- Long time no see. [Meaning = It has been a long time since I have seen you.]
This expression came about as a mockery of an Asian immigrant’s use of the sentence, “Long time no see you.” Since the intent was to diminish a non-native speaker and his imperfect use of English grammar, we see it in a slightly more negative light. Still, the expression has taken on such a friendly and non-mocking feeling, that a majority of native speakers do not relate to its original sense over a century later. Verdict: Probably not racist.
Some cases of negative stereotypes in language are easier to assess
A clearer case can be made with the following expressions:
- Chop-chop! (Meaning = Hurry up! Finish quickly!) This is simulated Chinese English.
- No tickee, no washee. (Meaning = If you don’t have a claim ticket, you can’t pick up your laundry.) Again, simulating Chinese English.
In both instances above, the intent was to mimic non-native speech in an unflattering way. Additionally, they still sound today as stereotyping the ungrammatical speech of Asian immigrants. Verdict: Probably racist.
A final example is the clearest cut:
- nigger-rigged (Meaning = assembled on the spot, temporarily, without proper tools or materials) More acceptably known as jury-rigged, this expression is often misspelled as jerry-rigged.
People of all races and cultures have to make do with the materials and budget they have access to in the circumstances presented. However, the implication here is that black people, specifically, are not able to make repairs properly—clearly a racial stereotype. Regarding this expression, the n-word above has a long and painful history of prejudice and bigotry in the United States. This epithet is broadly considered unacceptable in social discourse. Verdict: Most definitely racist.
Jury-rigged windshield defroster (source: mancouch.com)
Would you like to learn more about racism and stereotypes in language? Please visit my guest blog post for English and Culture on Negative Stereotypes in Language.
A different article was published in 2013 with regard to the expression chink. Do you think the users were racist in their use of this word?
New Vocabulary and Cultural Concepts
- racism = prejudice against a group of people plus the power over them (prejudice + power)
- at first blush = at first sight, on first impression
- mockery = making fun of
- to mimic = to copy, imitate
- to make do = to cope, compromise, settle, adapt
- bigotry = strong commitment to hatred and prejudice against other races or ethnicities