Last week, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was soundly rebuked for employing the word “Pharisee” as a metaphor for hypocrisy. Well . . . thank goodness he was corrected. The Pharisees were an important historic sect and the forefathers of modern Jewish thought. Associating Pharisees with hypocrisy, we’ve now been told, is antisemitic, hurtful, and harmful.
Granted, the word has been associated with hypocrisy for quite some time. I believe this particular usage originated with (checking my notes) Jesus Christ, referencing a specific group within the revered sect that was actually behaving . . . hypocritically. And sure, the Pharisees mentioned in those biblical accounts became a metaphor among Christians, who probably never remotely meant to suggest that all Pharisees were hypocrites. But why get bogged down in all that detailed thinking about things like context, precedent, or intent? People are offended. And that's all it takes to ban language.
I could spend considerable time on the Pharisee question (it’s honestly a pretty captivating discussion) were it not for the fact that this isn’t today’s topic. But here’s a brief-yet-thorough summary for the heathen among you that’s well worth the read.
Regardless of Buttigieg’s intent, my Pharisee friends were plenty steamed, I can tell you, especially because they’re not around to defend themselves and haven’t been since around 70 AD, which explains why they’ve dropped off my Facebook feed. In recent years, speakers of English (and its more prominent cousin, Error-Ridden English) have been frequently surprised to learn that words we thought we were using innocently had terribly offensive origins and needed to be immediately and permanently excised from our language.
And so, the Curmudgeon began to think . . . isn’t there some way to get ahead of the curve? Can we not police ourselves, rather than wait for the kind of unexpected public scolding that Mayor Pete recently experienced? Indeed. We can. Clearly, the only problem with political correctness is that it doesn’t go far enough. And so below, as a service to my readers, I present a list of words and phrases with evil derivations—words and phrases we must all stop using immediately.
Hysterical: Back in the days when almost all medical problems were treated with lobotomies and illicit drugs, doctors used “hysteria” as a medical explanation for nearly every sick woman they encountered (the prefix "hystero" means uterus). We must jettison this word at once.
Basket case: This originally referred to World War I soldiers who’d lost all four limbs and had to be carried around in a basket. Drop it immediately.
Grandfather clause: In the late nineteenth century, as a sneaky way to curtail black voting, several southern states passed legislation permitting only those whose grandfathers had voted before 1867 to vote. Nasty trickery. Kick the old timer to the curb.
Hooligans: The Hooligans were a family of 19th century Irish cartoon characters. Not only were the cartoons racist, but they also depicted urban immigrants as uncultured buffoons who would never fit in. Cease and desist at once.
Hold the fort: This originally meant to watch and protect against the Native American tribes who were seen as savages. You can’t go saying things like that.
Rule of thumb: In 1600s England, there was a law that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick, as long as it was no wider than his thumb in thickness (which explains the popularity at the time of marrying men with thin thumbs.) Ix-nay on the um-thay.
Moron: This word was coined by a psychologist named Henry H. Goddard who used pseudoscience to endorse segregation and racism through “selective breeding” and devised a system that rejected 80% of Ellis Island immigrants because they were “feebleminded.” Only a moron would use it after knowing this.
No can do: This phrase that mimics Chinese pidgin English traces back to the mid-1800s, when many held racist attitudes towards Chinese people. No can say.
Long time no see: Today it means “I haven’t seen you in a while.” But originally, it mocked the speech of Native Americans. How . . . can you say such a thing?
Peanut gallery: Peanuts were introduced to America during the slave trade. This fun-sounding expression originally referred to the balconies of segregated theaters, where black people had to sit. Speak it not.
Hip-hip hooray: In 1819, a series of riots against Jews broke out in Germany. They were called the Hep-Hep Riots because the Germans reportedly cheered “hep-hep” as they forced Jews from their homes. Nice guys. One theory holds that “HEP” might be an acronym for Hierosolyma est perdita, which means “Jerusalem has fallen” in Latin. Banish the phrase forever, and find another way to celebrate.
Call a spade a spade:When coined, this expression had no racial connotation whatsoever and referred only to the common garden tool. Much later, when “spade” became a racial epithet, “call a spade a spade” was declared racist
retroactively. Sure, it’s innocent, but since when has innocence been a defense?
Marijuana: Though it’s the most common name for cannabis, the word “marijuana,” I’m told, ignores a history of oppression against Mexican immigrants and African Americans. You can smoke it, but you can’t say it.
Paddy wagon: “Paddy” was a derogatory name for Irish immigrants in the early 1900s. At the time, many police officers were Irish . . . and so were a good number of their arrestees. If there are two groups you don’t want to insult, it’s cops and drunks.
Now, there’s no need to thank me. I’m sure you’ll all feel much better once these sinister words have been purged from your vocabulary, and that’s all the thanks I need. But why stop there? Below, I offer some words and phrases which, while not actually derived from anything untoward, sound like they could be. So, just to be on the safe side, I believe that these too should be banned post-haste.
Shoe polish Gnome
Moron proper behavior next week. Until then . . . please. . . research before speaking.