It’s a word we often think of when we mean “easy,” but its origins are anything but simple.
“Cakewalk” dates back to “prize walks,” or dances performed by enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, in which their enslavers served as judges and the best dancers were often awarded with slices of cake. Following the Civil War, the cakewalk became a regular feature of racist minstrel shows, where white performers donned garish makeup and costumes to lampoon African-Americans.
Or “sold down the river,” an idiomatic expression deployed to communicate betrayal. The phrase alludes to the practice of selling and transporting enslaved Africans down the Mississippi or Ohio rivers to plantations in the deep South, where conditions were notoriously brutal. Planters in states like Virginia and Kentucky often exploited enslaved people’s fears of being separated from their families and sold further south to quell insubordination and resistance.
American English is riddled with words and phrases with racist origins or undertones. Since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the flurry of protests his and other Black Americans’ deaths have inspired, a growing number of public and private institutions are reevaluating their reliance on language with racist connotations or history.
In June, a Boston University engineering student convinced publishing behemoth Pearson to replace the terms “master and slave,” used in computer programming and other technical fields to describe one process that controls another, in its textbooks. The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently declared its intention to abandon the term “grandfathering” due to its origin in laws meant to disenfranchise Black voters during Reconstruction.
“Providing such protection commonly is known — in the case law and otherwise — as ‘grandfathering,’ ” Judge James R. Milkey wrote in a footnote in the court’s Aug. 3 ruling on a Gloucester zoning dispute. “We decline to use that term, however, because we acknowledge that it has racist origins. Specifically, the phrase ‘grandfather clause’ originally referred to provisions adopted by some States after the Civil War in an effort to disenfranchise African-American voters by requiring voters to pass literacy tests or meet other significant qualifications, while exempting from such requirements those who were descendants of men who were eligible to vote prior to 1867.”
In Rhode Island, Governor Gina M. Raimondo signed an executive order this summer to drop “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name — Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — in state documents, agency websites, and employee pay stubs because of its associations with slavery. Elsewhere, realtors are reconsidering “master bedroom” and “master bathroom” in housing listings.
“People have always been aware of the power of language to discriminate, to dominate, but also to liberate,” said Michel DeGraff, a self-described “activist linguist” and professor at MIT. “I think it can only make for a better world if we become aware of the way that language has an impact on our society.”
Even seemingly innocuous words and phrases, used without malice, can offend or exclude, DeGraff said. He recalled an incident three years ago at MIT’s faculty lunch room in which he overheard another faculty member using the word “voodoo” while speaking about a complicated mathematical equation. DeGraff later approached his colleague and explained his objection to the use of “voodoo,” or “vodou,” a religion practiced in Africa and by enslaved Africans and their descendants in his native Haiti and throughout the Black diaspora.
“For him, it was not racialized and I cannot say he was being racist by using that term, but by using the term . . . he has the power to make others like myself feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. Literally, I could not swallow my food,” DeGraff said. “It had an impact on me.”
Linguist John Baugh of Washington University in St. Louis notes semantics often shift and evolve over time. Prior to 1965, for example, civil rights luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr. preferred to identify as “Negro” or “colored,” while “Black” was considered a pejorative, Baugh said.
“It was a gradual transition,” he added, as younger generations embraced Black as a racial identity and other racial descriptors fell out of favor. Today’s efforts to replace or refine potentially offensive language “is really not new,” he said.
Throughout history, language has been used to create and maintain social hierarchies, according to DeGraff. Imperialist Spain imposed the Spanish language on Indigenous people in the Americas to build power and spread Catholicism. In Haiti, students are primarily taught in French, which, he argues, has unfairly marginalized generations of Kreyòl speakers, who make up the vast majority of the population. Studies show speakers of African-American Vernacular English, known colloquially as Ebonics, routinely face “linguistic profiling” and discrimination, particularly in their quests for housing and employment.
DeGraff said he is not interested in policing what words people can or cannot say, but he hopes increased awareness of the ways in which racism has permeated the lexicon will allow for a deeper understanding of US history.
“As a linguist, I find myself to be in a difficult position because I cannot legislate how we use language, right? So I cannot tell you that you shouldn’t be using a particular phrase,” DeGraff said. “Just be aware that [a word or phrase] has this history.”