Historically Problematic Terms & Phrases
This post reviews some of the ways that our language and 'everyday' phrases can be problematic in terms of the history of enslavement and anti-Blackness, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.
Note: This document was created as a google doc during the summer of 2019 for a brown bag discussion with fellow mental health clinicians in relationship to historically racist phrases. It has expanded over time to include other categories (my specialty work with the queer & trans community is a more extensive section). It was last updated during the Fall of 2020.
Please remember that with each of the terms/phrases & suggestions in this document, someone might choose to use the language for themselves as a way to reclaim power, reclaim the oppressive history, and/or just because they like it and it feels right for them.
This list is more about us being aware of how the language we use has the potential to be harmful, though sometimes it is context & identity dependent. We should NEVER tell our clients they cannot use certain terminology for themselves.
Plus - the language is constantly changing over time and in response to critical discourses like this one! So we need to be flexible, open-minded, and willing to ‘try new things’ to best support & affirm everyone we work with. It makes us all more compassionate humans.
Here are some quick resources as an introduction to these concepts:
1) Six phrases with surprisingly racist origins: Bing Video
2) 10 Common Phrases that are Racist AF: SomeCards
3) 12 Racist & Offensive Phrases that People Still Use Today: Business Insider
4) Some were adapted from an instagram account: @intransitive.ar
5) Check out this resource from UC Davis
Origins in Anti-Blackness, White Supremacy, & Oppression of Black* Folx
1. Peanut Gallery (often used to get people to be quiet)
Origin: During the Vaudeville era, peanuts were often thrown from the balcony at unpopular performers. Black folks were forced to sit in that upper balcony, which was considered the cheapest and least ideal section. (also has been called “the n-word gallery”)
Alternate potential origin: George Washington Carver was the “pioneer” of the peanut, (at the time, being a black scientist was not taken seriously/valued) + peanuts were introduced to America same time trading of enslaved people began
Instead, use “audience” or “sidelines”
2. Grandfather Clause or “Grandfathered In” (quicker access because of a certain status or passing down of something)
Origin: A racist post-Reconstruction political strategy used to purposefully disenfranchise black voters after the Civil War.
Southern states defied the 15th amendment by stating that folks could only vote if their parents/grandparents were able to vote prior to 1867 (which was prior to when Black folx were permitted access to voting rights)
Instead, use “legacy” or “fast-tracked”
3. Welfare Queen (women who misuse or falsely collect government support)
Origin: Popularized in Reagan’s campaign – a racially charged exaggeration of one minor case of real welfare fraud
It undermines the importance of welfare programs while also supporting racist and sexist stereotypes about black women
Side note: White folx receive the most welfare out of any demographic
Instead, “impoverished” or “low-income” or “needing government assistance”
4. Down Low (to keep something secret/private)
Origin: “otherwise heterosexual” Black men have sex with other black men but needing to keep it hidden. For example, holding parties and not bring protection because that might suggest intent.
This also impacted the spread of HIV to potentially unaware partners of Black men.
Instead, “Keep this private/confidential” or “hushed”
5. Ghetto/Ratchet (an impoverished, often urban area)
Origin: Often associated with BIPOC and negative attributes as a reference to housing communities that are impoverished
This problem is a result of years of racist policy & gentrification
Instead, cheap, worn out, poor, dangerous
Origins in the Period of Enslavement (*note use of enslaved instead of slavery)
1. Sold down the river (betrayal)
Origin: A reference to enslavement and families being torn apart in the south
Enslavers punished enslaved people by taking them to the slave trading marketplace in Louisville, KY and selling/transporting them to plantations in the deep south/harder conditions (via the Mississippi river)
Instead, “screwed me over,” “ripped off,” or “betrayed”
2. Shuck & jive (joking/evasiveness with authority figures)
Origin: Meant as a form of survival and resistance for enslaved people - a protective and evasive behavior adopted toward white folx in power
Consider: the balance between singing and shouting gleefully during corn-shucking season versus lying and teasing in “traditional race relations”
Modern – black folks go along with racist white people’s wishes
Instead, "evasive" or "deceiving"
3. Uppity (stuck up or conceited)
Origin: Used by white Southerners for Black and enslaved people who did not fall into line, who stood up to racism, looked them in the eye, i.e., that they “didn’t know their place." (and was usually followed by the n-word)
Even in modern times, conservative critics referred to the Obamas as uppity
Instead, “arrogant” or “conceited”
4. The “itis” (sluggish, often referred to with post-meal fullness)
Origin: ‘itis’ by itself is a historical stereotype of lethargy/perceived laziness associated with Black Americans - it is a shortened form of “N-word-itis”
The root form or ‘itis’ is for inflammatory diseases (e.g., cystitis) and sometimes used in a casual form (e.g., senioritis)
Instead of ‘itis’: “food coma” or “sluggish”
5. Cracking the whip or whip ‘em into shape
Origin: Whips were used for punishment on Black enslaved people
Instead, “get things in order” or “shape up”
6. Slaving away
Instead: “working really hard"
We should never compare our work to the trauma & abuse Black enslaved people went through. While you’re at it, these phrases also should not be used other than their literal definition for obvious reasons: “i was raped,” “this is a witch hunt,” etc.
7. Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo (children’s rhyme)
Origin: Unclear, but commonly used during times of enslavement - believed to suggest what enslavers might do if they caught a runaway enslaved person.
In the original version of the song, the n-word was used instead of “tiger.”
Instead, Flip a coin. Ask a friend. Make any decision without singing!
8. Master (such as master bedroom, master sommelier, etc.)
Origin: connected to the role of the ‘master’ who enslaved people.
Instead, "main," "primary," or "expert"
Origin in Anti-Black, Racist, and/or Oppressive Slurs (note: some have been reclaimed)
1. G*p, G*pped, or G*psy (nickname for the Romani/Roma people or nomadic people)
Origin: Europeans incorrectly assumed the Romani people were from Egypt, but they were an Eastern European group from North India.
The Romani people were (and are still!) often stereotyped as untrustworthy, thieves, & dirty. Due to severe marginalization and threats of violence by others, they engaged in “forced migration” for centuries. Many Romani are no longer nomadic because of laws targeting them.
In the same category as the n-word and r*tard! Why? Romani people continue to face discrimination worldwide. For example, in Europe, they are often denied housing & jobs, in segregated schools, and are hate crime victims. In 2009, France deported 10K Romani people.
Instead, draw attention to the ways the Romani people still face persecution today.
2. Thug/Hooligan (a violent criminal or troublemaker - has an undeniable racial charge)
Origin: Has often replaced the n-word in modern culture
Instead, consider how the criminal justice & prison system is modern day enslavement.
3. Call a spade a spade (the true nature of something, even if unpleasant)
Origin: Though the origin of the phrase was Greek, starting in the early 20th century it was used as a slang and derogatory slur for Black folks.
Also, “black as the ace of spades” or “spadelet” for infants
4. THOT (that ho over there; a sexually promiscuous person)
Origin: How the KKK referred to Black women sex workers (e.g., Sarah Baartman: Hottentot)
Instead, let's just not slut shame.
5. Illegal Alien (immigrants who do not have legal status)
This suggests they are less than human, that some belong more than others.
It fixates on legal status rather than people as individuals. It also ignores factors that impact people of color.
6. Moron, Lame, Ret*rded, Idiot, Stupid, Imbecile, Dumb, Cretin, Crazy, and Insane (targets people with mental, emotional and physical disabilities as objects for ridicule)
These words are often directed at Immigrants, BIPOC, Poor folx, Low IQ, and those with mental health struggles.
Also often used as synonyms for "worthless," "bad," "unintelligent," "incapable," etc.
Moron was originally coined by eugenicist & psychologist Henry Goddard for people with low intelligence and behavioral deviance. Goddard worked to keep “feeble-minded morons” from immigrating to the US, having his staff assess the “intelligence” of people coming through Ellis Island.
Instead, “fool,” “doofus” “silly” “worthless” “bad” “unintelligent” “incapable”
Instead of crazy/insane, “wild” “intense” “out of this world”
Mimicry of Pidgin English (vocabularies created to help with limited communication)
No can do - Westerners made fun of Chinese immigrants who used pidgin english
Long time no see – mocking Indigenous populations for their traditional greeting
Genocide is not just about people dying but also reflects in normalized cultural violence. “Deconstructing, mocking, and erasing someone’s language contributes to this pattern of colonialism.”
Of note, anything that has the word “Indian” in it and isn't explicitly related to people from India is likely problematic (e.g., “Indian giver”), unless an Indigenous person has claimed that phrase for themselves.
Origin in Nazi Germany
1. Hip Hip Hooray (originally “Hep Hep Hoorah”) - a Nazi rallying cry when raiding and hunting Jewish ghettos during the Holocaust
Origin of 'hep': Latin for “Jerusalem is lost”
'Hep Hep' riots in 1819 – communal violence against German Jews
'Hep Hep' is a German call that shepherds use to herd sheep
2. 'J*wed' me down (meant to negotiate a lower price)
Instead, Haggled, negotiated, bargained, etc.
Origins in Homophobia, Transphobia, and Heterosexism - LGBTQ2IAPK+ Community
The following are microaggressions and can be quite harmful:
LGBQ+ & Queer Community: Note, some may feel comfortable with their sexuality and/or choose to use this language within the community, as some phrases become part of popular culture - this doc is more about being mindful. (e.g., the word “queer” has been reclaimed by many in younger generations, though may still not feel OK for some elders in the community.)
1) That’s so gay or that sucks (bad or undesirable), cocksucker, lesbo, dyke, or fag (an insult/slur), no homo ("I like that shirt, no homo" i.e., just making sure you know I'm not gay!), and bromance & girl crush (connections with same gender friends)
Many of these words/phrases are rooted in homophobia and heterosexism, e.g., that a man being sexually attracted to another man or having oral sex with him are undesirable and require a comment to make sure others know you're 'not like that.'
There is nothing wrong with being queer. Period. Why does it feel so important to let others know that you're not?
Stop associating unpleasant activities with constructs of queerness. Do not attempt to insult someone with an act that can be quite pleasurable. By associating these terms with negative experiences, it degrades queer people.
When we straight people using qualifying language that lets others know they're not queer, it distances from the idea that queerness is quite normal, which 'others' queer people.
2) Specific to those who identify outside the binaries of gay or lesbian, there is significant stigma, higher risk of mental health struggles, and increased experience of microaggressions, such as the following:
Bi people don't exist.
They’re just promiscuous.
You're “too femme” or “too butch” to be bi.
When will you figure out what you want? You're just on the way to being gay.
Trans & Gender Nonbinary (TGNB) Community
1) Transgendered; a transgender; tranny; he-she; trans*, "Jon is a they;" & transgenderism
The word is transgender is an adjective, not a noun or verb. Someone is not a transgender. Transgendered is generally inaccurate (though sometimes still used by choice for some individuals). Transgenderism tends to indicate a condition/problem.
Instead: "Jon is transgender and uses they/them pronouns."
Instead of ‘transgenderism:’ I work with the TGNB population and/or I specialize in supporting TGNB people and/or I am a gender affirming/TGNB affirming clinician. (note: some refer to themselves as gender specialists, though one could argue that it is not up to providers to determine whether they are competent allies to the trans community - similar to how it isn’t my place to label myself as ‘woke’ but a BIPOC might identify me in that way).
2) "Preferred" name or pronoun; male/female-bodied, natal sex or born a girl/boy, is that a man or a woman; what is your real name; what are you really; have you had the surgery; and/or refusing or failing to call someone by their chosen name & pronouns
These suggest that you do not respect this person's identity, that the person is not who they say they are, that they weren't born the gender they identify with, that they have adopted this identity as an option, and/or that their genitals are all that matters when it comes to someone's gender identity.
We cannot make assumptions about someone's gender based on how they look, what genitals they have, what name/pronouns they use, how they dress, etc. If you're unsure, either mind your business or ask the person what pronouns you should use for them. ("Hi, I'm Megan - I use she/her/hers pronouns - what pronouns shall I use for you?")
TGNB people express their gender in all kinds of ways, and engage in various medical and non-medical approaches to affirm their gender. Cisgender people don't get grilled about their genitals and medical history, so trans folx don't deserve that either. Most of the time, it isn't your business.
For clinicians writing surgery referral letters, sometimes these questions are relevant but there is always a way to ask without causing harm, and the questions should always be optional.
Instead, "What pronouns do you use?" "What sex were you assigned/designated at birth or what sex is listed in your insurance policy?" "What name is listed on your insurance policy for billing purposes?" "Have you engaged in any social, physical, or hormonal changes to affirm your gender identity?"
3) Will you be having the ‘full’ surgery; are you sure you’re not just a trans man; what are you; you need to take hormones before you can pursue surgery; and/or having assumptions about someone’s gender/pronouns based on how they dress, how they sound, what their name/pronouns are in contrast to our binary gender expectations (e.g., a person named Jon who uses she/her/hers pronouns).
These are common experiences for TGNB people, especially those whose gender identity doesn't fit within the traditional gender binary of man vs. woman.
Gender nonbinary people may identify as genderqueer, agender, bigender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, two-spirit (or another culturally-connected term), and enby (spelling out "NB" but be mindful that NB historically refers to non-Black).
Some nonbinary people take hormones, some have medical procedures, some express their gender in non-binary-conforming ways, and some might be incorrectly read as cisgender based on their expression. There is no right way to be trans or nonbinary.
4) A note about TGNB language: Unsurprisingly, as with most constructs over time, the knowledge and language shifts. Some are shifting away from historically used language and in a direction of greater affirmation, though it varies by provider & the culture of an area/population, is context dependent, and many words/phrases may still feel OK for you & your clients! This includes a lean toward the following:
Community: Queer and trans, TGNB, sometimes TGNC or TGNBNC, you might see GSM (gender/sexual minorities; mixed)
To reduce the deception narrative, ‘blending’ rather than passing and being ‘read as trans’ rather than clocked
Ideal for gender affirmation: Gender Affirming Hormone Treatment (GAHT) and Surgery (GAS), Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS); Mixed: Genital Reconstructive (GRS) (initials could be read as gender reassignment surgery), ‘transition,’ and HRT. Moving away from SRS/sex change/medicalize.
Ideally, will call surgeries what they are (e.g., Vaginoplasty), though often clients will use “top/upper/chest," “bottom/genital," and "reproductive/internal" to describe.
Avoid masculinizing vs feminizing unless they use that language (masc vs femme is based on gender expression and reinforces the idea e.g., that trans men need to be masculine presenting).
given/designated/assigned name rather than legal/dead name; designated/assigned sex at birth rather than biological/natal/birth sex; misgendering/mispronouning instead of deadnaming
As mentioned above, some terminology/phrasing has been reclaimed by people in the queer & trans community, though should only be used in cases where the person self-identifies. (e.g., transsexual, boigirl, tranny, fag, trans dyke, transvestite, transgendered, trans*)
Origins in Misogyny, Sexism, Fatphobia, & Paternalism
(reminder: some of these words have been reclaimed)
1) Ugly, fat-ass, I’m so fat
These words tie into ableist, sizeist, healthist beauty standards. Fatness is also connected to racist ideals of European bodies in comparison to Black bodies.
Fat is NOT a bad thing. Or a violation of some social code for goodness. It is a descriptor of a body size, and it is often how someone identifies themselves within a marginalized community. “I consider myself to be a small fat person” or “As a fat person, I experience fatphobia and healthism, especially when I go to the doctor.”
Instead: “I don’t feel good in my body” “I worry that others aren’t attracted to me” or “I haven’t been feeling good about my appearance”
Note: Many folx in the fat community have reclaimed the use of the word fat to describe & identify themselves. Not everyone is in a place where that feels OK, but we might consider embracing it, or asking what it is we feel so uncomfortable about it?
2) Bitch (often toward womxn who are considered angry, controlling, and/or in power)
Targets/dehumanizes womxn, devalues women and femininity.
Reinforces sexism, even if used toward men, including queer and gay men.
3) Whore/Ho, Slut (often a womxn who is too sexual, promiscuous)
Expectations related to sexuality and negativity toward sexual behavior. Regulates how much is considered good.
Typically directed at sex workers, queer & trans people, BIPOC people.
Instead: promiscuous, sexually active (note: some have reclaimed “slut”)
4) Cunt, Twat, Pussy (someone who is weak or emotional)
Dehumanizes, as if those with vaginas are weak - perpetuates misogyny, sexism.
Often used between men to insult/put each other down, connects to toxic masculinity
Instead: weak, whiner
5) You guys, tomboy
Centers men, generalizes the group of people to be masculine-of-center
Instead, there are lots of other ways to address a crowd - folx, everyone, humans, people, all, friends, etc.
6) Rule of Thumb
Connections to domestic violence (person could beat their spouse as long as ruler no thicker than thumb)
Mixed info about the origin here. “A text may be proved to be inaccurate or false, but "if it reflects some deeper truth in society, it doesn't go away." The term "rule of thumb" may "not have that specific etymological origin, but men have dominated women in workplaces and in homes and in virtually every setting. It speaks to a deeper truth."
Alternative use of the phrase: Brewers tested beer by dipping thumb in the brew.
Instead: manner of operating, general principle
It feels important to clarify that this is by no means a comprehensive list and that this post is just scratching the surface in terms of the words and phrases we use every day that can be problematic. Most of the sections could be expanded further, in multiple ways.
Additionally, several sections that I have not yet had the opportunity to expand upon include language that is ableist, healthist, ageist, classist, and xenophobic.
I hope this post created a space to reflect on the common words and phrases you use daily, as well as noticing the ones you might have already moved away from. This type of article requires a bit of flexibility and openness, recognizing that there may be words and phrases that you teach yourself to move away from but that your clients openly identify as & feel comfortable using.
When you mess up, which you will, accountability and authenticity are the key! Acknowledge it; take responsibility; check in to see if the person wants to process; and process afterward in community to figure out what you need to do differently moving forward. Catch yourself when you're in a shame spiral and reach out for support. We are imperfect, so mindful self-compassion and intentional behavior are crucial.
*I use Black when referring to the particular impact of anti-Blackness and racism on those whose ancestors were forced into enslavement, though the impact of anti-Blackness and racism also impacts those who have black skin regardless of whether their ancestors were brought to this continent or if they immigrated later. Someone might identify as Bl