The internet is peppered with lists of common terms and idioms which they purport have offensive origins. In truth, there are many such terms, these include “gypped”, relating to “gypsies”, “paddy wagon”, relating to Irishmen, “Paddys”, and obviously “Indian Giver”, someone who gives or sells something and then wants it back, relating to beliefs about the Aboriginals of North America. Other ones include phrases which have their origins in a racist past, such as “sold down the river”, meaning a betrayal, was an idiom which came from American slavery. The more northerly slave states had better conditions than those in the Deep South, and families were often broken up when members were sold down the (Mississippi) river to the blood-stained cotton fields of Alabama and Georgia. Some of these lists however contain incorrect folk etymologies and misinterpretations, and furthermore, are often used by ideological people on both the Left and Right to suit their political purposes. Therefore, to add a touch of variety, here is a list of everyday words and phrases which are not offensive, but are often incorrectly labelled as such.
- “History” is not “His Story”
This misconception makes for a good first choice. The term history is saddled with an incorrect folk etymology, sometimes relayed by self-described feminists. Rather, “history” derives from the French histoire, which means, well, “history”. The French word in turn derives from the Greek historia, which also means “history”. This was the title of Herodotus’ account of the Greco-Persian Wars, written ca. 450 BC, usually translated as “The Histories”. Essentially, the term “history” and various cognates have meant “history” for over two thousand years.
- “Rule of Thumb”
This term comes from Northern Europe during the Renaissance. England at the time had large cloth-making and wool industries. This was a term relating to tailors and cloth merchants whereby the width of their thumbs was legally an inch. Modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands too had a thriving cloth trade at this time, and to this day the term duim means both “thumb” and “inch” in Dutch, and is a cognate of the English “thumb”. Interestingly, one of the earliest written uses of this idiom dates from early 1700’s England, and is actually exposing this misconception as incorrect. One of the earliest written American law codes, “The Liberties of the Massachusetts Collonie (sic) in New England“, written 1641 stated in Article 80: “Everie marryed woeman shall be free from bodilie correction or stripes by her husband, unlesse it be in his owne defence upon her assalt.” The belief that one lives in an enlightened present and are inheritors of a barbaric and ignorant past is not a delusion isolated in the twenty-first century.
Another internet rumour is that “picnic” derives from “pick a nigger” and referenced lynching. This is incorrect, as the term “picnic” derives from the French piquenique (meaning an outdoor meal) and actually predates the racial slur, and even the American Revolution as the first written usage of the French word comes from the 1630’s. There are several similar words and phrases which are similarly misattributed to the racial slur, such as “niggardly”, meaning stingy or cheap. This word also predates the racial slur, coming from the Old Norse (Viking!) nigla, which means to be heavily concerned with unimportant or trivial matters. Whereas the word “nigger” came from the Spanish negro, which came from the Latin niger, hence the countries Niger and Nigeria as well as the Niger River, and means “black”, as in the colour. The word did not gain a racial connotation until much later during European colonization of North America.
- “To Call a Spade a Spade”
This is a unique example, rather than having an offensive origin this term ironically “became” offensive. The word “spade”, meaning a small shovel used in gardening, comes from the Middle Ages. The idiom comes from a 1500’s mistranslation of the Ancient Greek writer Plutarch, ta suka suka, ten skaphen de skaphen onomason, “to call a fig a fig, a trough a trough”. The use of “spade” as a racial slur dates from America in the 1920’s, coming from the black playing card suit, depicting a stylized version of the gardening tool. Modern playing cards date from the Renaissance. Interestingly however, the idiom is often used by anti-immigration pundits as a covert way of using racialized language, sometimes called “dog whistle” politics.
This is the danger of folk etymologies. If one hears an explanation of a word or phrase which is either humourous or makes a political point, a degree of skepticism is often in order. Most English words have rather boring etymologies, often coming from Greek, Latin, Germanic or French words with similar meanings. A common misconception is that the term “politics” comes from “poly”, meaning many, and “ticks”, meaning blood-sucking creatures. This is demonstrably false, “poly”, from the Greek polus and polloi, and “ticks” from the Germanic tik or tikka which means to pat or touch. “Politics” comes from the Greek politikos, which was the title of a work by Plato, sometimes translated into English as “The Statesman”. Polis is Greek for city, Constantinople was historically Konstantinopolis, and more modern examples include Indianapolis and Minneapolis. It is incorrect to mix word origins in this way and does not often naturally occur in a language. In summation, do not trust the etymologies and historical narratives of ideological people.