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The Words that Time Forgot


5 min read

Written by


Argos Multilingual

Published on

14 Jul 2020

The global Black Lives Matter protests have helped to shed light on words and phrases that many would like to see disappear from public life. With that in mind, let’s look at a few phrases that have (perhaps justifiably) fallen out of favor over the years.

You’ve probably seen the image in your social media news feed. A student at a demonstration outside the United States embassy in Warsaw holding a sign saying, “Stop calling me Murzyn”. The image sparked a debate over linguistic usage in Poland, where the word “Murzyn” (which comes from the same root as the English “Moor”) has long been used to refer to a black person.

Many (particularly among Poland’s black community) now argue that it is outdated and offensive, but others insist that it is neutral and should continue to be used. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of dropping “Murzyn” from the lexicon is that the Polish language is full of blatantly racist and offensive sayings, proverbs, and idioms that contain the word. Here are some examples, translated into English with the word “Negro” standing in for “Murzyn”:

  • A hundred years behind the Negroes
  • It is pointless to bleach the Negro
  • To work like a Negro
  • Stupid like a Negro
  • The Negro has done his job, the Negro may go
  • To be someone’s Negro 

Should the word disappear from contemporary Polish life, it would have plenty of company in the English-speaking world, where many words that were once commonly used to refer to peoples or ethnic groups have fallen out of favor over the years. Here are a few that are worth examining:

  1. Colored. For most of the 20th century, this was the polite English term for a person of African descent. However, by the 1960s, many black leaders came to see the term as too evocative of an era when their people were treated as second-class citizens. As a result, the term “black” began replacing it, a process which continues to this day. Ironically, while “colored” is now widely considered a pejorative and has almost entirely fallen out of favor, the word lives on in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909 when the word was still commonly used.
  2. Indian. Until the end of the 20th century, this term was used to describe both the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and the original inhabitants of North America, a situation that arose from Christopher Columbus’ false belief that he had landed in India in 1492 (he had in fact stumbled upon the Caribbean). The word still can and should be used to refer to a citizen of India, but it’s become more acceptable to use the phrase “Native American” when referring to the indigenous peoples of North America.
  3. Chinaman. This is another term that has no negative connotations in older dictionaries, and the usage of compound terms like “Englishman”, “Frenchman”, and “Irishman” is still common and accepted. However, the character of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski was right – “Chinaman” is not the preferred nomenclature anymore, and the term is noted as offensive by modern dictionaries thanks to its use in pejorative contexts regarding Chinese people and other Asians, as well as its grammatical incorrectness, which resembles stereotypical characterizations of Chinese accents in English.

Our position 

As language professionals, we know that words matter. That’s why we support the campaign to drop the use of the term “Murzyn” (you can find a link to the petition here) and it’s also why we stand behind all efforts to build a kinder and more inclusive world by using kinder and more inclusive language. Visit us online to learn more about why language matters so much to us.

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