October 17th, 2010
The Husband accused me today of making up expressions, I for one, am deeply offended. One hardly has to make up an expression, there are enough odd ones already out there. Of course, most of us have hardly any idea what we’re actually saying when we use them…. If you break down the derivations of the expressions, they become notably less savory. So I decided to research some of my childhood favorites and also a couple that I have heard lately that make me wonder if people actually know what they’re saying.
Here you go, enjoy.
1. Yellow-belly: of loony tunes fame, it means someone who is a coward. I can only relate this expression to Yosemite Sam, and as a kid it never occurred to me that there might be anything derogatory in this whatsoever.
I was wrong. As uncovered by The Phrase Finder at http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/yellow-belly.html, yellow-belly is a reference to Linconshire Fens back in jolly old England who were considered to be so unhealthy that their complexion was a jaundiced as the bellies of the eels for which they are evidently known.
I wonder what Yosemite Same had against the Fens?
The first US usage appears back in the 1840’s and was a direct jab at skin color aimed at Mexicans, not so much in a racial way but rather to indicate that the offending Mexicans appeared unhealthy.
Take that, you damn unhealthy Mexicans.
2. Gypped: I’ve had probably a dozen people in the past month use this expression in conversation. It stood out because prior to this month, the last time I actually heard someone say ‘gypped’ was in elementary school.
As in: “Oh man, this burger looks nothing like it did on TV, I’ve been gypped!”
The explanation, thanks to The Phrase Finder at http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/8/messages/624.html
Isn’t too surprising, it means that you believe a gypsy has tricked you out of your money. I wonder how many of the dozen people in the last month who have used ‘gypped’ in my presence meant to say that.
It is, of course, overtly racist, implying that all gypsies are lying, cheating thieves. It’s also a little oddly specifically racist, especially for us Americans, considering that most of us have never actually met a gypsy. The term gypsy comes from ‘Egyptian’ as the first gypsies arrived from the east and the early Europeans arbitrarily assigned Egypt as their place of origin, as it represented all the suspicious non-European countries such as Turkey, Hungary and of, course, Egypt.
So I suppose you could substitute ‘I’ve been gypped’ with ‘I’ve been Egyptianed’….
I am pretty sure that none of the people who have used that expression lately in my presence have meant to be racist, nor do they really have much of an idea that what they’re saying is, indeed, inherently racist. When I sort of jokingly asked my co-worker what he had against gypsies, he looked at me like I had swallowed a frog.
3. Nit Picking: I use this one all the time myself, although I won’t be after reading about it. Nit Picking has been used by pretty much everyone have ever known to mean that you are being really picky about teeny tiny details.
As in: ‘Jeeze, that bouncer is being so nit picky about the rules, I mean, really, I’m pretty much twenty-one…like in two years….’
Evidently, according to Know Your English at http://englishwithsunil.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/what-is-the-origin-of-nit-picking/, a ‘nit’ is the egg of lice or other parasitic insects. Monkeys and Gorillas ‘nit pick’ each other all the time and eat the fruits of their labor, yum. In this context the phrase sounds pretty innocuous.
However, during the slave trade it took on an entirely different context at the slaves who arrived in the American colonies had to be ‘nit picked’ for lice and fleas before they could be sold. So the expression changes connotations at some point from monkeys to people, thus making it decidedly distasteful.
My advice is that unless you really are talking about gorillas, or are a gorilla yourself, find another expression.
4. That’s So Gay: I saved the best for last. I work in a high school; my students think everything is ‘gay’. They think that when I assign them a ten page research paper that it’s ‘gay’, they think it’s ‘gay’ that someone would listen to 1980’s pop music, they think taco truck guy is ‘gay’ because he doesn’t give them a discount.
If I ask them, and I do ask them, why they are so intent on bashing homosexuals, they immediately respond with ‘Oh, I didn’t mean that…..’
No one ever does….sigh.
The recent PSA campaign involving the incomparable Wanda Sykes said it best, but if you think something is dumb, just say it. Or come up with any number of actual dumb things in the world to compare the dumb thing that’s just happened to you to.
It’s easy, and fun.
‘Jeeze, that waitress is so twenty-one year old with a boob job whose only goal is to get a regular spot on Jersey Shore.’
“Man, that is so forty-year old guy desperately trying to cling to his youth by driving a souped up corvette and dating that twenty-one year old waitress with a boob job who’s only goal is to get a regular spot on Jersey Shore”
Or you could shorten it and say:
“That’s so Jersey Shore”
My point is this – if we knew where our language came from, we’d all talk a lot less….it’s like chicken nuggets –once you see the pink meat paste coming out of tube on an internet video, you’re much less likely to order off the value menu.