Words and Phrases you Likely Didn’t Realize Were Offensive in 2017

It turns out that the words ‘free speech’ are now offensive. Who knew? And furthermore, what other antisocial expressions might we inadvertently be using? Here are roughly 15 things you cannot say on the internet.

It started when in the news this week a comedy show was shut down by protesters outraged that it was going to be an offensive spectacle. What was the justification for that outrage? Not the performers or the content of their jokes, it was the name of the event. It was called The Free Speech Comedy Show. Read about that debacle here.

Being a comedy show, it was named as a parody of the sensitivity over free speech events right now. (Earlier this month, Ryerson University cancelled an event discussing free speech because of a backlash over controversial speakers.)

So, it has come to this. It’s not the offensive things that people enjoying freedom of speech might say that is the problem. No, now the very phrase “free speech” itself has become a trigger word. Apparently, it is now offensive to talk about or celebrate free speech.

Who knew. I’ve long been a big fan and supporter of free speech. I didn’t know I was offending people.

It happens. Sometimes we use words or phrases that can be offensive to others without even knowing. This was years ago now, but I used the word Oriental to refer to Asians. It was explained to me that it was considered offensive. Of course, I apologized and haven’t used it since. At the time, I had just never heard that it was a disparaging term.

So, to help save you from similar potentially embarrassing moments, here are some other terms and phrases that you might not know are offensive:

No can do. A colloquial way to indicate you are unable to do something. Seems harmless enough, but apparently in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s this phrase was first popularized to mock the stereotype of a Chinese immigrant speaking in their second language.

Long time no see. A common way of indicating that, “Hey! I haven’t seen you in a while!” However, similarly to ‘no can do,’ this phrase has unfriendly origins. It was first used in imitation of the English spoken by Native North Americans.

Gyp. “There were supposed to be 12 in the set, but I got gypped.” I grew up hearing this phrase for being cheated or shortchanged and never really thought about it. The expression comes from Gypsy – a word itself that is considered offensive now – and implies that Romani people are dishonest.

Peanut gallery. My mom used to say this a lot, in reference to unasked for feedback. “Hearing from the peanut gallery.” The expression originally referred to the least expensive seats in 19th century vaudeville. So, this is where the riff raff, mostly non-white, audience would sit (and eat peanuts while watching the show.) It’s both racist and classist, implying that the opinions of those people don’t matter.

Eenie, meany, miney moe… Y’know, how you choose who’s going to be ‘it’ in tag? While the offensive word has long since been removed, the original version of this rhyme contained the ‘N-word.’ Its roots go back to the time of slavery. There’s got to be a better way to make a decision.

Paddy wagon.
Patrick was once the most popular name in Ireland. So, ‘Paddy’ became an expression for an Irish man. Calling the police truck for rounding up trouble makers and drunks the “Paddy Wagon” implies that those hooligans are Irish.

Hooligan. I blew it on that last one. Apparently calling a troublemaker a ‘hooligan’ is also offensive to Irish people. The word is derived from the Irish last name ‘Houlihan’ which is included in a popular pub song about a rowdy Irish family.

Life is fair. Okay, I’ve never heard of anyone being offended by hearing the words ‘life is fair’ specifically. (But then again, until this week, I had no idea that ‘free speech’ was a contentious expression.) However, apparently stating the belief that we live in a just society is offensive to people who think that we don’t. in his book Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Derald Wing Sue points out that the following phrases are hurtful.

  • I believe the most qualified person should get the job.
  • Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement.
  • Gender plays no part in who we hire.

Sue refers to these as the ‘Myth of Meritocracy,’ which he explains is the mistaken belief that hard work and talent lead to success as opposed to gender and race.

Other surprisingly offensive expressions include grandfather clause and basket case. Both of which, I’m pretty sure I hear all the time.

Basket case. This phrase for ‘being a mess’ originally referred to soldier from World War I, who has lost all four limbs and had to be carried around in a basket. That’s both disturbing and potentially offensive to amputees.

Grandfather clause.
The grandfather clause is a North American term that, according to the Oxford dictionary, refers to a clause that ‘exempts certain classes of people or things from the requirements of a piece of legislation affecting their previous rights, privileges, or practices’.

However, the phrase’s history is more troubling. In order to limit black voting, several southern states in the US passed constitutional clauses only allowing the descendants of black people who had voted before 1867 to vote without having to meet stringent conditions. That is to say, they were only allowing those whose grandfathers had voted before 1867 to vote. The grandfather clause.

Weird that that became a popular expression.

I think we should all make an effort to be nice to each other and avoid intentionally offending people. However, we need the freedom of speech to debate ideas and opinions – and to put on comedy shows parodying the sensitivities of the day.

But that’s just me. How about you? Does the idea of free speech send you running for your placard and protest gear?

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