The pen is mightier than the sword. This phrase has been used hundreds of times by English majors trying to defend their titles and newspaper editors trying to rally their writers on particularly long nights, but what does it actually mean? Coined by playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton around 1839, the phrase refers to the power of communication and writing, an idea that is certainly prevalent in text-heavy society. With great power, though, comes great responsibility, one which many people have abused. For thousands of years, people have been using words as a means of oppression. By imbuing a term with negative connotations and attaching it to a particular race or gender, people have been able to manipulate power schemes in favor of supposedly superior groups. Some of these words have gradually disappeared from our vocabularies. Others have eluded their harmful history and gained permanent positions in our dictionaries. For example:
1. Hysteria (n.): exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement
Around the 1600s, “hysterical” was a term used to describe women suffering from mental illness. Many physicians believed that the uterus controlled a female’s bodily functions and that any medical afflictions a woman might exhibit were caused by a “wandering womb” that was moving around the body. In fact, hysteria itself comes from “hysterika,” the Greek word for uterus. The prescribed treatment for such a problem varied, but oftentimes, women were told that intercourse with a man or a “friendly massage” from the physician could cure their ills. I can only imagine how many women had to cover up period pain to avoid being prescribed an unwanted sex treatment. (Granted, this was not the only cure for hysteria, just one of them, but the notion that a man’s body was considered a legitimate treatment for anything seems ridiculous enough to mention.)
2. Hip Hip Hooray: a happy cheer
The actual origin of this phrase is unknown. Some claim that the phrase was a play on the marching cadence “hep, two, three, four.” Others say it came from 1890s saloon owner Joe Hep, who used to hang around criminals hoping to be included in their scandalous acts. Whatever the case, the development and popularization of this phrase did not come until the anti-Semitic riots of the 19th century. “Jew hunters” would often yell “Hep! Hep!” in their search for Jewish citizens in Germany, turning it into an unsettling rallying cry that has almost nothing to do with today’s positive, celebratory use of the phrase.
3. Run amok (v.): behave riotously
This term stems from the Malay adjective “amog,” meaning, essentially, “dashing around in a crazed frenzy.” When British sailors stumbled upon the island in 1772, one of them, captain James Cook, used the work “amog” to describe the Malaysian people, who he claimed had murderous tendencies that would lead them to kill anyone they confronted. This view, that non-white foreigners were wild or savage, can be classified as oppressive in that it favors a positive representation of the white man and alienates all other races. Welcome back to high school English class, everyone.
4. Cakewalk (n.): an absurdly easy task
The first time I watched Meet Me In St. Louis with Judy Garland, I spent the remainder of my evening humming the opening song and laughing at Garland’s cutesy antics. The next day, when I analyzed the film more in depth with my film class, I realized how deeply embedded the offensive, racist material is, particularly, in the cakewalk scene. The quirky “cakewalk” dance that captures the attention of the party-goers actually stems from an old slavery tradition where white slave owners would gather around at events and make their slaves do their best impression of white aristocrats. Whichever slave had the best dance would win a cake for themselves or their owner.
5. Uppity (adj.): self-important
When Rush Limbaugh speculated that Michelle Obama showed signs of “uppity-ism,” the Internet went mad. Apparently, uppity started out as a phrase used by white southerners to refer to slaves who didn’t stay in their place. Though the term was originally used among blacks (the OED cites the first use of the word in J.C. Harris’s Uncle Remus), uppity was eventually adopted by whites and used to keep slaves under control. While the term has since developed other definitions, many still view it as racist and steeped in offensive connotations.
6. Indian Giver (n.): someone who gives a gift and immediately expects it back
According to historians, Native Americans practiced a system of bartering in which a gift was given to someone under the expectation that eventually, they would return the favor. According to author David Wilton, “Europeans, upon encountering this practice, misunderstood it, considering it uncouth and impolite.” Raised in a system where giving a gift was a free, voluntary gesture, the Europeans were offended when the Indians expected gifts in return. This led to the term “Indian Giver” and eventually tarnished the Native Americans’ reputation amongst white colonists.
So there you have it. While most of these words possess completely different definitions today, their ugly history demands some level of attention.