Sometimes, common English words have surprisingly offensive origins that you may not notice unless you dig into where they come from. In this post, we look at six common terms with origins that may surprise you, as well as offering some alternative words and phrases you can use in your writing.
Some people use ‘uppity’ to say someone is self-important or arrogant:
A ‘grandfather clause’ is a set of (usually favourable) conditions that continue to apply after a change in law, policy, etc. This means that the new rules won’t apply to anyone or anything covered by the grandfather clause:
Older buildings are exempt under a grandfather clause.
This term is now common in English, along with variants such as ‘grandfathered’. But the first grandfather clauses were designed to deny Black people the right to vote, giving them an unpleasant history.
This came after the 15th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting. In response, a number of southern states passed complex laws to stop Black Americans from voting. But since these would also affect some white citizens, states exempted people whose grandfathers had the right to vote, thereby protecting poor white Americans while excluding freed slaves.
These exemptions thus became known as ‘grandfather clauses’. And given this history, we suggest using something like ‘legacy clauses’ instead.
3. Basket Case
‘Basket case’ is used colloquially to refer to a person (or entity) who is considered unable to cope, often because of extreme nerves or stress:
He’s acting like a total basket case.
The phrase originated in World War I to refer to a soldier who had lost their arms and legs, meaning they had to be literally carried in a basket. Over time, it evolved to refer to anyone who is dependent on others, before eventually becoming associated with mental health in its modern usage.
You can avoid this phrase, however, by using ‘anxious’ or ‘nervous’ instead.
Nowadays, ‘hysterical’ refers to excessive emotion in general. For instance, this could be when something makes you laugh uncontrollably. Or it could be when you’re so angry you lose control:
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She was hysterical when she found out.
But ‘hysteria’ was originally a medical condition attributed to women. And some people still use ‘hysterical’ to accuse women of being overly emotional, giving it a sexist edge, so you may want to avoid it.
Instead, try ‘funny’, ‘angry’ or ‘excited’, depending on what fits the context.
The police carted the brawlers away in a paddy wagon.
But ‘paddy’ is slang for someone of Irish descent, based on a variant of the name ‘Patrick’. And one theory for the origin of ‘paddy wagon’ is that it comes from the stereotype that Irish people are drunk and violent. As a result, you may want to avoid this term and simply say ‘police van’.
Nowadays, we use ‘moron’ to describe someone as foolish:
Gordon is such a moron!
Most people don’t realise, though, that this word was coined as part of the eugenics movement as a medical term for someone of low intelligence.
Terms like ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’, and ‘stupid’ have similar origins, all beginning as medical terms related to mental development. Over time, scientists and doctors stopped using these words. But they remained in English as insults.
Because these words are so common now, most people won’t find them offensive. However, there are plenty of alternative insults available if you prefer to avoid them. You can try words like ‘fool’, ‘oaf’ or ‘halfwit’ for starters, then work your way up to more explicit language from there.
Avoiding Offensive Language
As you can see, some common terms have the potential to offend. And while many people won’t have problems with these words, it’s always a good idea to think about where words come from and use inclusive vocabulary.
If you’d like any help with this, our editors can provide advice on vocabulary, including alternatives to any potentially offensive terms. Upload a 500-word sample document for free today to find out more.