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There is no shortage of common words and phrases with racist connotations

As cities topple Confederate monuments and sports teams abandon Native American mascots, people are increasingly reconsidering their use of common words and phrases that conjure racist imagery, a topic the Globe has explored. Here are some examples of popular idioms and expressions with racist connotations or histories:

“Crack the whip”: An expression for using one’s authority to urge subordinates to work harder or behave better, “crack the whip” traces its origins to 17th-century horse-drawn wagon drivers, according to the “The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms” by Christine Ammer. But today, the phrase has ugly associations with chattel slavery.

“Gyp”: As a verb, “gyp” means to cheat or swindle. It’s likely derived from “Gypsy,” according to Merriam-Webster, which is considered an ethnic slur by many Roma people who have been unfairly maligned throughout history and face discrimination to this day.


“Mumbo jumbo”: This phrase, which typically denotes anything that is nonsensical, meaningless, or superstitious, is believed to have derived from the Mandinka word “Maamajomboo,” a masked dancer who participated in certain West African religious ceremonies.

“Off the reservation”: Meaning to break with a group or deviate from normal behavior, this expression originates in the 19th century, when the federal government forcibly expelled thousands of Native Americans from their homelands and onto reservations in the American West. For Native Americans, going “off the reservation” was a dangerous prospect that could result in arrest or murder.

“Peanut gallery”: This idiom, used to describe hecklers or any group of people with petty and unwanted criticism, has roots in the vaudeville era at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. In vaudeville theaters, the peanut gallery referred to the cheapest seats, often occupied by Black people and the poor.

“Paddy wagon”: Otherwise known as a patrol wagon or police van, the term dates back to a time when prejudice against Irish immigrants in the US was common. “Paddy” is a slang word for an Irish person. The phrase, which gained widespread usage in the 1930s, may refer to the fact that many police officers at the time were of Irish descent or that the people they mostly arrested were Irish.


Deanna Pan can be reached at Follow her @DDpan.