Phrases you didn't know were racist

Esti Greythorn
·5-min read

This article uses terms that are offensive in order to identify them as such. Readers may find the content upsetting.

Most people, if asked, will say they wouldn’t use language that is racist or offensive to another group of people. But we tend to overestimate our own goodwill, and we also tend to happily use phrases and words that we hear around us without questioning them.

The truth is, many of us are actually using expressions that have deeply problematic origins without knowing it. And while it might not be the answer to ban phrases that have now entered common usage, it is important to know their history, if only to recognise historical wrongs.

Random collection of  different words and word-forms on magnetic tiles
Many common words actually have problematic origins. Photo: Getty

If you’ve ever used any of these phrases, you might not have realised they have a backstory that is somewhat iffy, if not downright unacceptable:

No Can Do

This seemingly innocuous phrase emerged in 19th century America by Westerners mocking the broken English spoken by Chinese immigrants.

Paddy Wagon

Though people tend to think ‘paddy’ is a shortening of ‘patrol’, the term was in fact an ethnic slur against Irish people in the US in the 19th century, where it was an abbreviated version of ‘Padraig’, or the English ‘Patrick’. With high rates of arrests in New York of Irish immigrant gangs back then, police vans became known as Paddy Wagons.


This word might seem like just a cute way to talk about the fine print or the detail, but claims have been made that it was originally a term used to refer to the dirt and debris left at the bottom of ships that had been used for slave trade, and it eventually became as a slur for the people being traded.


It might have seemed funny when good old Bugs Bunny stopped Elmer Fudd in his tracks and exclaimed ‘Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute!’ but the phrase has significant racial undertones, being a modern term for frustration – sort of like ‘damn it!’ – that draws its origins from the black slave cotton pickers of America’s South.

Chinese Whispers

Though engaging in the fun word play game of passing on a whispered phrase might be a regular occurrence, the term itself comes from negative stereotypes established in America during the height of Chinese immigration that framed the sound of Chinese people speaking as unintelligible or nonsense. These days, the better term is to call the game Telephone.


You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t used this word in jest to describe someone they know as self-important. But it has less-than-funny origins in connection to African American people. It was used as a put-down against Black men and women who protested or were activists – many of whom died by lynching – at the turn of the 19th century.


This term has become ubiquitous with a cheery idea of an easy achievement, but its post Civil-War origins are less breezy. While it originally referred to a promenade or march of African American origin, during which couples with the most intricate moves received cakes as prizes, cakewalks became incorporated into a form of mockery among white people performing minstrelsy (an American form of racist entertainment developed in the early 19th century).

Spirit Animal

Not a day goes by when Twitter doesn’t see a meme with the phrase ‘spirit animal’, to denote a creature that seems to reflect exactly how a person feels: a lasagne-eating cat is someone’s ‘spirit animal’ on a lazy day; a big-eyed pug is someone’s ‘spirit animal’ on a frenetic day. But the term comes from totems and animal guides that take up a sacred place in some indigenous religions and cultures, and using it to talk about feeling hungover or being run off your feet is easily experienced as disrespectful.

Peanut Gallery

Sure, it sounds funny, but this term – which people tend to use nowadays to refer to the general public – comes from the time of America’s South, when African American people took up the seats at the top of the theatre, designated for the poorer people, from where they would throw peanuts at the performance in a show of rowdiness. It memorialises a time of deep segregation.


This term is commonly used to refer to ‘nonsense’ or ‘misbelief’, but since it originated in travel writings from the 18th century to refer to African participants in religious ceremonies, it carries a racist undertone that seems to relegate non-Western practices as nothing more than superstition.


People have begun to use this, confusingly, to mean everything from both ‘great’ to ‘not great,’ but the word itself has a history that is hard to see in any light other than tragic. Its use can be traced back to the 1500s, when it was the Italian word for the part of Venice where Jewish people were made to live. Since then, it resonates mainly with the areas Jews were forced into during the Nazi reign in Germany, as well as overcrowded areas of socioeconomic deprivation where people have had to live, by force or necessity.

Never miss a thing. Sign up to Yahoo Lifestyle’s daily newsletter.

Or if you have a story idea, email us at