In the 13 years that I’ve lived in the US, I’ve heard the words “No can do” on so many occasions — from teachers, comics, news anchors, Hall & Oates — that I’ve always thought it was simply a cheeky way to say “alas.”
But the phrase, I learned several days ago, emerged in the late 19th century, around the time the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act banning immigration from China, the country of my birth. Some white Americans popularized the saying to mock the accented, sometimes ungrammatical English of Chinese immigrants.
There are many common sayings we take for granted that have racist histories and inferences, some more obvious than others. Take “open the kimono” (which describes corporate transparency) and “kabuki” (a stand-in for political theater). While innocuous in corporate-speak and among media pundits, phrases like “open the kimono” still evoke the image of a bared body that draws on harmful stereotypes against Asian women, said Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, the executive director of Asian American Journalists Association.
“A term like this acts like ‘death by a thousand cuts’ in that it isn’t outright malicious, but it perpetuates the hypersexualization of Asian women,” she said. “We have to acknowledge the fact that it does have historical roots in the western gaze on Asia.”
As journalists, we have an ethical obligation to choose our words wisely, particularly when describing people from underrepresented groups. It’s important not to glaze over words and phrases — often not English in origin — that perpetuate stereotypes and trivialize historical trauma against marginalized communities.
“In journalism, our goal is to build trust and credibility,” said Karen Yin, editor and founder of the Conscious Style Guide, a digital library of resources and newsletters on crafting inclusive language. “If our word choices repeatedly veer into insensitive territory, we’ll end up insulting and alienating our audience.”
What’s more, Yin said, clichés and idioms that draw on racist, sexist or ableist tropes often obscure prose and wind up confusing the reader.
“The fix is simple: Say what you mean,” she said. “Using clear, precise and plain language goes a long way. And always consider the context, because context and content work together.”
Below are some examples of insensitive language to look out for.
Language that’s harmful to the disability community
Words like “insane,” “crazy” and “hysterical,” better known as “disability euphemisms,” have become common parlance to describe shocking occurrences, and are often found in headlines and sprinkled throughout reporting. The same goes for “crippled” and “lame” and metaphors like “turning a blind eye.” Experts say such language, while generally non-malicious, can be damaging to people with disabilities by underplaying the seriousness of their conditions.
“For many people with disabilities, the cumulative effect of this sort of ‘innocuous’ language is that it ignores their existence,” said Kristin Gilger, director at the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Gilger said the challenge with conducting sensitivity training is that language evolves quickly, particularly in the disability community. To address that, the NCDJ created a style guide with dozens of commonly used terminology that reporters should avoid when describing people with disabilities. Rather than policing language, Gilger said, the point of the guide is to encourage reporters and editors to write about disability issues with more confidence.
“One of the biggest issues now is that people are afraid to report on this community because they don’t know the right language to use, or they’re worried their mistakes are going to affect somebody,” she said. “What we’re doing is trying to tell people, ‘Look, we want you to try because there is not enough coverage of disability.”
Language with racist roots
A number of clichés in the English language are rooted in racist notions and “otherness.” Often, they twist a word taken from another culture to mean something unflattering. Some draw on the grotesque treatment of enslaved Africans; others misrepresent Indigenous traditions celebrated by tribes that suffered irreparable harm under western colonialism. And many will make you go, “Oh, yeah, that usage does look a little sketchy,” if you think about it long enough.
Here are some harmful sayings to avoid:
- “Bottom of the totem pole” — A totem pole is a sacred Native American monument; in some tribes, carvings of animals and other symbols on the bottom of a pole are, in fact, a mark of honor. The idiom in mainstream culture, however, suggests that someone or something is of the least importance or lowest social standing. Non-Native people who use the phrase in this way, Indigenous activists say, are not only engaging in cultural appropriation but also desecrating tradition.
- “Let’s have a powwow” — To Native American tribes, a powwow is a social gathering for ceremonial purposes where people sing, dance and engage in healing rituals. In American parlance, “powwow” is used casually as a substitute for “meeting” or “discussion.”
- Spirit animal — In some indigenous traditions, like the Potawatomi and Shawnee tribes, part of a belief system called “totemism” includes spirit animals that operate as spiritual guides through a person’s life. However, the pop culture adoption of the term has come to mean a creature that embodies one’s inner personality.
- Cakewalk — “Cakewalks” were dances enslaved Africans performed on plantations mocking the mannerisms of their enslavers. It has since been twisted to mean “easy victory.”
- Uppity — “Uppity” traces back to the Jim Crow South as an epithet white people reserved for Black people who didn’t show them enough respect.
- “Sold down the river” — The saying derives from the practice of selling slaves down the Mississippi River to cotton plantations in the South. It’s now deployed as a substitute for “profound betrayal.”
- Grandfathering/Grandfathered in —The phrase has its origins in Jim Crow-era laws that put requirements, like literacy tests and poll taxes, on voting. The idea was to prohibit Black people from casting their vote. But when some feared the laws would also disenfranchise poor white Southerners, several states made it legal for those who had voted in elections prior to vote moving forward. Now, “grandfathered in” means a provision in which an old rule applies to some, but a new rule applies to others.
- Gyp/gypped/gypsy —”Gypsy” is a pejorative used to describe the Romani people, and carries many negative connotations, including being “swindled” or “cheated.”
- “Call a spade a spade” — For most of its history, “call a spade a spade” was simply a metaphor for “tell it like it is.” But the saying took on racist overtones in the early 20th century when it became a derogatory term for Black people.
- Gung-ho — The term traces back to 1930s China, as an abbreviated translation for the “industrial cooperative movement,” which organized unemployed workers and refugees to produce public goods during the war. Years later, it was adopted by the US military, which mistakenly thought the concept meant “teamwork.” Today, gung-ho has become a zinger to mock someone who’s too enthusiastic, a try-hard.
Many of us have uttered at least one of these sayings in our lifetime. Bringing attention to offensive language isn’t about scolding or shaming people; it’s about guiding them toward better practices. A good rule to consider: If you’re questioning whether a saying is insensitive, just go ahead and avoid it.