Phrases and phrases you might need to assume twice about utilizing

Have you ever ever casually used the phrases “spirit animal,” “first-world downside,” or “spooky”? It may be time to rethink your use of those phrases and take away them out of your every day lingo.

CBC Ottawa compiled a small listing of phrases, submitted by readers and a few of our journalists who’re Black, Indigenous and folks of color. We ran a few of the phrases by anti-racism and language specialists, who mentioned a few of these phrases will be hurtful to numerous teams of individuals for his or her historic and cultural context.

“Being an English speaker would not entail that you simply essentially know the racist etymology robotically,” mentioned Ai Taniguchi, a linguist and an affiliate language research professor with College of Toronto Mississauga, in an electronic mail to CBC.

Etymology is the examine of the origins of phrases and the best way their meanings change over time.

“The truth that you mentioned it, oblivious to the etymology, would not robotically make you a foul individual.”

What you do as soon as you discover out a phrase is racist, sexist or ableist etymology carries extra significance, she defined.

Taniguchi mentioned she understands it is a difficult query, but it surely’s much less about being politically appropriate and extra about listening to the lived experiences of others. 

It is not a lot about political correctness, I feel it’s concerning the empirical accuracy.– Jas Kalra, Anti-racism coach

“‘I did not comprehend it was racist’ doesn’t eradicate the ache of the hearer,” mentioned Taniguchi. “As language customers, we have now the social duty to observe the affect our utterances have on others, particularly when it includes a marginalized group.”

Anti-racism coach Jas Kalra agrees.

“It is not a lot about political correctness, I feel it’s concerning the empirical accuracy and … if someone actually calls us out on a specific phrase, we have to cease and say, ‘It is not about me,'” mentioned Kalra, who runs Ottawa-based Jas Kalra Consulting and coaches folks and organizations on inclusion and variety.

Blackmail, blacklist and black sheep

“The difficulty right here is that these are all unfavorable phrases,” mentioned Joseph Smith, an anti-racism coach and educator. “[It] connotes evil, mistrust, lack of intelligence, ignorance, a lack magnificence — the absence of white.” 

This reducing of blackness on the spectrum with reference to worth was developed additional within the wake of the transatlantic slave commerce but it surely additionally predates that, defined Smith. 

“[Black] turned related to a specific group of individuals, and that group of individuals acquired all that unfavorable connotation. That is why we attempt to transfer away from these sorts of phrases.” 

Kalra identified the tech trade is now shifting away from utilizing whitelist and blacklist, changing it with phrases like block-list or deny-list. Pc code labels like ‘grasp’ and ‘slave’ are additionally being re-examined.

“If we use the phrases ‘allow-list’ [instead of whitelist] or deny-list … it enhances the true understanding of that phrase,” she mentioned.

WATCH | Anti-racism coach explains why it is necessary to be delicate to vocabulary:

Find out how to break the behavior of utilizing hurtful phrases

Anti-racism coach Jas Kalra says altering the best way you employ sure phrases takes humility and the willingness to interrupt what may be a discovered behavior.

Ghetto and internal metropolis

Smith says phrases like ghetto and internal metropolis grew out of the commercial revolution in North America. The phrase ghetto additionally has a painful historic root in Europe throughout the Holocaust, and was possible derived from Jewish settlements in Italy centuries in the past.

“Ghettos and internal cities had been sometimes seen to be locations the place much less refined folks lived — the individuals who weren’t updated culturally, development-wise,” he mentioned. 

In the meantime, from the late 1900s onwards, political rhetoric and media illustration confirmed suburbs as nice, quiet and mild areas, whereas internal metropolis was seen as harmful and dangerous, he defined. 

Utilizing these phrases implies a unfavorable connotation towards folks of a sure socio-economic class (typically related to racialized teams) — sometimes those that have lately immigrated and sometimes transfer to giant metropolis areas and never suburbs, he mentioned. 


The time period “spook” — used generally to discuss with a ghost, spy, or one thing that is unusual and horrifying (typically used throughout Halloween) — has a historical past of being an anti-Black slur when white troopers started calling fellow Black troopers “spooks” throughout World Struggle II.

“[It’s offensive] due to who and to what it is utilized to,” mentioned Smith. 

Halloween decorations are seen exterior a home in Ottawa this 12 months. Spooky, a time period typically used throughout this vacation, is linked to a racial slur that was as soon as used in opposition to Black troopers. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

He reminds folks rather a lot is packed into sure phrases you might use flippantly.

“There is a historical past behind it and there is additionally all these connections which are made to different teams,” he mentioned. “It is virtually like these phrases have tentacles that unfold and connect themselves to different issues and infect.”

Bought down the river

This phrase, now used to imply somebody profoundly betrayed or jeopardized one’s place, is immediately related to the transatlantic slave commerce, Smith mentioned. 

“The issue with it, we use it in plenty of areas,” he mentioned. “The unfavorable connotation is hearkening again to a time when enslaved African folks could be actually offered down the [Mississippi] river for revenue, and seen as chattel, objects that might be used or disposed of on the whims of their slave homeowners.”

Linguist Taniguchi says as soon as we study the painful historical past behind phrases like these, we have to commit to being delicate to others’ experiences.

“Language, communication, and free speech are beneficial, however these items can’t come at the price of endangering another person’s rights and pursuit of happiness.”

Grandfathered in

Likewise, the phrase grandfathered in — modernly referring to somebody or a enterprise being exempt from new guidelines and proceed working as is — dates again to a nineteenth century coverage known as the “grandfather clause,” which not directly stopped Black Individuals from voting by limiting eligibility to solely these whose ancestors may vote.

Joseph Smith, who does anti-racism coaching for organizations together with for the CBC, reminds folks rather a lot is packed into sure phrases that you could be use flippantly. (Paul Smith / CBC)

“It is also talking to that patriarchy … a patriarchic household having supreme energy over how issues function and manifest, and them possessing all the ability and autonomy to make choices and dictate the course of the long run,” mentioned Smith.

“It is re-inscribing the thought of a male-dominated society or world.”

“At a gathering, as an example you mentioned ‘grandfathered in’ — you had no concept that it has racist roots. If a Black individual asks you to not use that time period, then do not,” mentioned Taniguchi.

Spirit animal, powwow and tribe

Given the historical past and present oppression of Indigenous communities by settlers, defined Taniguchi, metaphors English audio system casually use — corresponding to spirit animal, let’s have a powwow, and tribe — could be a painful insult to Indigenous communities.

“[It’s] a reminder that their previous and tradition have all the time been handled as insignificant by settlers,” she added.

Spirit animal has develop into a time period of endearment to explain somebody who the speaker deeply pertains to or loves, defined anti-racism facilitator Kalra. Some synonyms will be alter ego, idol or soulmate.

A totem pole in Gitwinksihlkw in northwestern British Columbia. The pole represents elders educating the youngsters with a supernatural fowl at prime that’s mentioned to have stopped the lethal stream of the Tseax volcano round 1780. Phrases like ‘lowest on the totem pole’ are inappropriate, says Kalra. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Nevertheless, she notes, non secular connection and reverence for nature and ancestors is deeply rooted throughout Indigenous cultures — and the phrase itself turns that idea into an informal catchphrase that is not broadly used, and even used in any respect, amongst Indigenous folks.

The identical thought applies to utilizing tribe and powwow — used to say “let’s collect” — casually in dialog by somebody who’s not Indigenous.

“If a non-Indigenous individual says ‘that is my tribe,’ I do not assume it is OK, although they’re utilizing it presumably in a metaphorical means,” mentioned Taniguchi. 

Lowest on the totem pole

Totem poles are sacred gadgets, very similar to headdresses, in Indigenous tradition, defined Kalra. 

The phrase “lowest on the totem pole,” casually that means one thing is much less necessary, not solely is culturally appropriating the totem pole, but it surely’s contextually improper.

“In some First Nations communities, being [carved] low on the totem pole would possibly truly be a terrific honour,” she mentioned. “Whenever you’re culturally appropriating someone’s cultural symbols … you are saying that marginalized members of society are free for taking.” 


Within the trendy context, savage has develop into a phrase used to explain somebody who is fierce, or a state of affairs that’s intense — and carries a optimistic or semi-positive connotation.

It is used rather a lot within the sports activities world, defined Smith, particularly amongst males when describing actions, behaviours and ideas that do not conform to norms. 

The issue, he says, is the phrase’s origin: it was utilized by colonizers who noticed themselves as “the epitome of refinement, intelligence, spirituality” and regarded Indigenous folks, and Black and different folks of color who had been forcibly dropped at North America, or arrived right here quickly after colonization, as “savage, brutal, unrefined, and uncultured compared to European settlers.” 

In 2019, an Indigenous educator known as out a clothes line for utilizing the phrase on T-shirts.

“It is necessary to know that for Indigenous folks, this phrase is our N-word,” mentioned Douglas Stewart on the time.

Gypped and gypsy

When somebody says they have been “gypped,” they imply defrauded or swindled of one thing. 

However that phrase, which stems from gypsy, is problematic because it has been used as a derogatory slur in opposition to Roma who traditionally travelled from place to put throughout Europe, says Smith.

The time period perpetuates the stereotype that Roma are decrease class, not mature or cultured, and foreigners, defined Smith. 

“You are othering someone,” he mentioned.

First-world downside

Folks have slowly moved away from utilizing the time period third world to explain low-income nations, says Kalra, however the phrase first-world downside continues to be used to convey that one thing is a matter solely to those that reside in a rustic with privilege and wealth. 

It may be classist, she mentioned.

“Once we’re saying first world, we’re placing them on the prime … What does it convey?” she mentioned. “Why do we have now to make use of these prefixes, which form of dehumanize some nation or some human being or a gaggle?” 

Brainstorm, blindsided and blind-spot

The prefix blind is usually utilized in metaphorical phrases like blindsided, blind spot and blind main the blind, to explain the limitation of sight.

“I can see that being offensive to individuals who cannot see,” mentioned Julie Cashman, a member of the incapacity group and co-chair of Shopper Motion Committee, which advocates for people with disabilities. 

Utilizing the time period brainstorm is also insensitive to those that have mind accidents or are neurodiverse, added Cashman.

“Extra necessary is the stigma that it’s going to effectuate about …  problems [like] epilepsy for instance,” mentioned Kalra.

Dumb and lame

Dumb is modernly used to explain lack of intelligence, but it surely was as soon as used to explain somebody who lacked the flexibility to talk. Equally, lame is now used to explain somebody or one thing that is boring or unexciting, however was additionally a time period used in opposition to those that have limitations of motion of their limbs. 

Each are extremely offensive when describing folks within the incapacity group, but in addition when used casually, says Cashman.

“Folks now are utilizing lame as a slang, so that they go round saying that is lame,” she mentioned. “I do not assume they actually perceive what which means .. they only assume it is a cool time period, however for me, once I hear that, I undoubtedly know what that time period means … it is one thing I would not say.”

WATCH | Incapacity advocate explains how phrases have damage her previously:

‘Utilizing these phrases isn’t applicable’

Julie Cashman, a member of the incapacity group and co-chair of the Shopper Motion Committee, says she’s been damage earlier than when somebody has casually used a phrase with out realizing its offensive origins.

Tone deaf

Although it is used to explain somebody who’s not in a position to distinguish musical pitch, or metaphorically as somebody who’s insensitive to sure issues, tone deaf might not be a sort time period to those that have listening to impairments.

Cashman suggests utilizing descriptors like “musically disinclined” as an alternative. Insensitive is one other suggestion.


This time period is used extra as a verb to explain a state of affairs, nonetheless, it was used traditionally relationship again 1000’s of years to explain people who find themselves partially disabled or unable to maneuver their limbs. 

“I’ve seen that phrase getting used within the Bible,” mentioned Cashman. “I feel that is very offensive … I might use perhaps incapacity … or mobility problem.” 

“It is ableist,” mentioned Hélène Courchesne, co-ordinator of planning and funding with Ottawa-based group ABLE2, which helps folks with disabilities. “It is taken out of context and that is when it turns into offensive.”

Metaphorically, folks can say “overtaken by worry,” she suggests.

“It is the pejorative connotation to it. You are inferior to me, you will by no means be nearly as good as me,” Courchesne defined about utilizing phrases that may be painful for the incapacity group.

“Language is essential.”

For extra tales concerning the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success tales throughout the Black group — try Being Black in Canada, a CBC undertaking Black Canadians will be happy with. You’ll be able to learn extra tales right here.


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