10 Words that just may have to be retired.

Rob Hoffman
11 min readJul 13, 2020

Some words leave us speechless

The power of words, they are something to behold aren’t they? They can tear down, destroy, reinforce, inspire, confuse, and impress. They are more powerful indeed than the sword. We remember the words of great men like Martin Luther King Jr., but quickly forget the racist Neanderthals who sought to bring him down with violence. We are lifted by presidential speeches of great inspiration such as the inaugural addresses of FDR or JFK, but sickened by pronouncements of carnage and fear, such as the one given by the “Orange Menace” back in January of 2017. We can be felled by tweeting out words that we seemingly don’t even understand to be wrong such as with the case of hopefully soon-to-be ex-Philadelphia Eagle Desean Jackson who decided to retweet some good old fashioned anti-semitism allegedly spoken by Adolph Hitler no less, and then find ourselves being forced to beg for forgiveness. Yes, words must be chosen more carefully than the clothes we wear, the food we eat, even who we choose to spend our time with. The things is though, we can change our diets, our wardrobes, even our entourage, but our words follow us like a stray dog that’s just been sprayed by a skunk.

Knowing the power of words, some of us in our desperation to make a salient point find ourselves prone to overusing them, or worse, using them incorrectly in an ill-fated effort to bring pain or damage to someone or something we detest. As a reminder to those who believe that only Donald Trump has been “unfairly” criticized, some of you may recall that in the early days of the Obama administration when he was trying to fix the ill-effects of the “Great Recession,” as well as provide affordable healthcare to 30 million Americans, his political opponents on the right including, but not limited to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Fox News, Alex Jones, the Tea Party, and other enlightened folks started attaching the suffix Nazi to almost anything and everything that Obama was attempting to accomplish. Finally there was enough pushback by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, and anyone who actually survived Nazi atrocities, or lost a family member in the Holocaust for most of these critics to at least modify the use of this most heinous description.

(Just so we know the difference, here’s what real Nazi rhetoric sounds like. Typically attempting to provide affordable heath care is not associated with Nazism. Usually it begins with scapegoating an entire race of people for causing problems in what is supposedly not their country. If you didn’t know the difference between an alleged Nazi and a true Nazi, now you know. You Tube)

Nobody is claiming that achieving mastery of the words at one’s disposal is easy. Making it more of a challenge is the fact that some words actually change their meaning over time. For example, the word “rhetoric” comes from ancient Greece, and it referred to the art of public speaking. If one were to mention somebody such as Euripides, and claim they were partaking in “rhetoric,” it would have been a compliment. “Euripides, you old dog, that statement was pure rhetoric.” “Gee thank you Socrates. Why do you think it’s rhetoric?” (You always wanted to answer one of Socrates’ statements with a question, just to show him how annoying it was.) However today, if somebody accuses someone of practicing “rhetoric,” it’s really just another word for being full of s#it. For example, if a certain president were to state: “And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” — Trump at a press conference, Feb. 26th. That my friends would today be described as rhetoric, or being full of s#it.

Rhetoric is hardly the only word to see its meaning altered in the way it’s used. “Nice” used to mean silly or foolish, while “silly” used to refer to things that were blessed. A “spinster” was simply a woman who “spun,” before it came to be known as a somewhat undesirable term referring to an unmarried woman. Meanwhile a hussy was simply the mistress of a household before it came to be known as a woman of disrepute.

Sometimes we use words so haphazardly it’s almost worthy of a crime. For example we tend to throw the words hero and coward around often in our society, and typically with little thought over how carelessly we are using them. An athlete is often described as heroic if they play through an injury, but what does that say about the exploits of a soldier who volunteers to serve in order to protect our freedoms, or a fireman who runs into a burning building? We will describe those who refuse to serve their nation during wartime as cowards, but many agree it took more guts for Muhammad Ali to refuse induction into the United States Army over his moral objections to the Vietnam War then it would have been for him to basically put on the uniform in order to perform public relations duties. Was Ali a coward or a hero?

Then there’s Fox News’ very own Tucker Carlson, a man so devoid of anything approaching value as a human being he makes one pine for the days of proven sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly. Carlson, who must have suffered some sort of head wound as a child, recently described Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois as a coward, while also referring to her dismissively as somebody who served in the Illinois National Guard as if her duties involved taking a stroll around Wrigley Field. Senator Duckworth if you’re not aware, had her legs blown off as a chopper pilot in Iraq from a ground launched grenade. He has also questioned her patriotism. He did all of this from the comfort of his cushy life which people like Senator Duckworth risked her life to protect. Is it me, or is Tucker Carlson committing an act of perversion upon the English language? It would appear that he has badly confused the words “hero,” and “coward” in hopes of attacking the senator. Here’s to hoping he fails.

Just so we’re sure. A woman who is wounded in combat in service to her country, has both of her legs blown off, and through her indomitable spirit recovers to the point that she can become a United States Senator is a hero. (Getty Images)

On the other hand, a soft man-child who says horrific things all in the name of television ratings while attacking wounded veterans is a coward. Now you see the difference between a hero and a coward. By the way, while I can’t prove it, I think he’s showing us the size of “Little Tucker” in this photo. (Getty Images)

More recently, thanks to changes in our mores, we find ourselves taking a second look at our vernacular. This investigation isn’t so much due to the way that the meanings of words have changed or the fact that we are throwing them around haphazardly, instead we have now reached a point where some words due to their scurrilous roots are being recommended by society at large for oblivion. In other words, it’s being suggested that we remove certain words from our vocabulary. While changing the language to fit the times may come off as not unlike the scenario envisioned by George Orwell in his famous book 1984, it’s really being touted as a way to bring racial and cultural sensitivity to the element in our society that binds us the most, language.

The amazing thing of course is that most people aren’t even aware that several words that are used commonly in our society emanate from somewhat dubious beginnings. We assume that they have been a part of our society for so long, and are used in such a benign fashion that there simply can’t be anything sinister in their foundations. However, in light of our recent awareness regarding cultural and racial sensitivities, what used to pass as part of our heritage, now finds itself on the chopping block. Statues that honored Confederate heros and symbols such as the “Stars and Bars” that represent racist attitudes and practices are now being being taken down all over America. The next target for this reevaluation appears to be words. Here are just a few examples of words that may find themselves banished to the dustbin of vernacular history. I will grade them as follows. If it appears that the word or phrase is steeped in racism and/or slavery, and is extremely culturally insensitive I will vote “Gotta go.” If it appears that people are being overly sensitive, or it is an example of political correctness gone haywire, I will grade it as “Keep it.”

  1. Master Bedroom — Typically this is the largest bedroom in the house, and usually contains a private bathroom. While the term “Master Bedroom” literally couldn’t sound less offensive, this term is being retired amongst realtors, even though there is no proof that it has any roots in American slavery. Still, if you are out house hunting, you may very well hear a realtor refer to this room as the “Primary Bedroom.” I think this one is out to lunch. It’s one thing if people called this primary bedroom the “Master’s Bedroom,” a term that literally sounds like something you would find on a plantation, but “Master Bedroom” hardly seems offensive considering it has no direct ties to slavery. Grade = Keep it!
  2. Blacklist/Whitelist — The term “blacklist” has always had negative connotations whether it referred to being blacklisted as a worker for trying to form or join a union, or during the McCarthy Witch Hunt hearings when people suspected of Communist activities would be blacklisted or prevented from working in their chosen field. It has no direct link to slavery, but there are still those who object to the “Black = bad” theory. Apparently if something is on the “whitelist,” that means it’s okay, but I’ve honestly never heard anybody use the term “whitelist” to describe much of anything, therefore I think that “blacklist” is okay. Grade = Keep it!
  3. Masters Tournament — It is the most prestigious tournament in golf, and even though it’s played in the deep South, Augusta, Georgia, its name’s roots only references the idea that the winner has demonstrated “mastery” in their golfing skills. The tournament adopted the name in 1939, well after slavery came to an end. This as I see it isn’t even a debate. Grade = Keep it! I should point out though that for many years it was mandatory that all the caddies had to be black, and no African-American golfers were even allowed to participate until golfer Lee Elder broke the color barrier at Augusta in 1975. Maybe they shouldn’t rename it, but I”m not sure it should be quite as celebrated due to its overt racist past. If it helps, the fine people at Augusta only allowed their first female members in 2012, so I guess we can describe them as equal opportunity offenders.
  4. Peanut Gallery — We know it better as the “cheap seats,” or the place in the theater or even classroom where goofy or obnoxious comments are made. We then yell, “No comments from the Peanut Gallery.” Actually though, the term refers to the seats where African-Americans had to sit, typically in the back of the theater during Vaudeville shows in the late 19th century. While nobody even considers this when the term is used, it probably should be retired. Grade = Gotta go.
  5. Cakewalk — This is what we all seek, an easy victory, however where did the term come from, and is it as innocent and harmless as it seems? Of course not! Before the Civil War, slaves would perform this dance on their master’s plantation to mock the way white people danced. Plantation owners often saw it as a pathetic attempts to copy the way white people walked. The winner would get a “cake.” I believe that this one is so obscure, and used so rarely that it’s almost irrelevant whether it’s used or not. Grade = Keep it!
  6. Lynch Mob — It’s used today to indicate an unjust attack, but only an ignoramus could possibly not understand the racial tone that the idea of a “lynch mob” represents. What’s there really to discuss here? Grade = Gotta go!
  7. Sold down the river — This term is used to indicate if somebody has been betrayed, but it’s hardly even used anymore. Honestly, when was the last time you used this one? Its roots are also pretty obvious, in the time before the Civil War slaves were literally sold down the Mississippi River. Again, this isn’t going to effect too many people, but if you’re still using this one, then it’s time to move on. Grade = Gotta go!
  8. Uppity — I can’t even remember the last time I heard anybody use this term, but I don’t think it’s ever been about anything but racism. It’s basically a word used to tell African-Americans that they should be showing more deference to a white person, or that they should know their place. It’s pretty much gone from the lexicon, but just in case. Grade = Gotta go!
  9. Thug — This word actually comes from the word thuggee, a Hindi word meaning thief or swindler. In America it was usually used to describe any kind of tough guy or criminal. Today however it’s used mainly as a descriptive term for any young African-American male who has the audacity to walk around with a hood on. It’s the George Zimmerman view of black America. Grade = Gotta go!
  10. Welfare Queen — Ronald Reagan used this term, which is a blaring racist dog whistle, to rally working class whites who believed that African-Americans were lazy, and bilking the social safety net by abusing their welfare checks in order so they could drive around in their Cadillacs when he ran for president in 1976. When David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan ran for office in Louisiana in the early 1990s, he often spoke about the “rising welfare class.” It was obvious to all of whom he spoke. There’s only one use for this term, and we all know what it is. Grade = Gotta go!

I don’t know, I’m thinking that maybe we need to lose the term “cakewalk.” After all, everybody knows white people can’t take a joke. (Getty Images)

There may be no more challenging task for a society then to have it rexamine itself and its history. It’s been 160 years since the Civil War, and in many ways we are still debating its outcome, and its aftermath. This country, as all countries, has its sins. We demand that nation’s such as Japan and Germany come clean for their behaviors, but hesitate to take an honest look at our own. For some, the idea of having to say your sorry is the ultimate admission of weakness. Those who opposed tearing down Confederate monuments, or taking down the Confederate flag claim that people simply need to move on. Yet, the very things that would allow us to heal as a nation such as the removal of these hateful symbols, and elimination of certain words that contain within them aspects of racism are the very roadblocks to this attempt to “move on.” Nation’s only heal when they can look at their collective past and admit that change and reflection is necessary. No, it’s not easy, and nobody ever said it would be a “cakewalk.”