Nationality (and very un-PC) expressions

Copyright: pixxart / 123RF Stock Photo

Copyright: pixxart / 123RF Stock Photo

“A Texan, a Russian and a New Yorker go into a restaurant in London. The waiter tells them … “(You can read the rest of the joke here, but please come back to Glosso when you’ve finished.)

We all enjoy a bit of harmless, humorous ethno-cultural stereotyping once in a while, especially when it comes in the form of these “three nationalities” jokes. So it’s not surprising that there are also a number of popular verbal expressions that make use and fun of national cliches. Just like their jokey compatriots, these phrases are generally disrespectful of the peoples they’re targeting; in fact, some of them are downright racist and likely to cause offence. So be warned when you read this post, and please don’t shoot the messenger. Glosso presents the most common nationality expressions — many of which go back decades or even centuries — with their definitions and their origins where known or offered. If we’ve missed any, please add to the comments section below. 

To give it some English: putting some spin on a ball. OED: “Perhaps so named because English players introduced the technique to the U.S. (but see quot. 1959). 1959 Sunday Times 5 Apr. 4/5 The billiard term ‘putting on the english’, which Atticus states is current parlance in American bowling circles. The story goes that an enterprising gentleman from these shores travelled to the United States during the latter part of the last century and impressed the Americans with a demonstration of the effect of ‘side’ on pool or billiard balls. His name was English.” (hat-tip to WordReference Forums for this explanation)

Body English: bodily motions made in a usually unconscious effort to influence the progress of a propelled object (as a ball). (Merriam-Webster, from 1908). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms offers this explanation: “Movements of the body that express a person’s feelings …. This expression originated about 1900 in such sports as bowling and ice hockey, where a player tries to influence the path of a ball or puck by moving his body in a particular direction. (It was based on the earlier use of English to mean “spin imparted to a ball.”)”

An Irish goodbye: “Ghosting—aka the Irish goodbye, the French exit, and any number of other vaguely ethnophobic terms—refers to leaving a social gathering without saying your farewells. One moment you’re at the bar, or the house party, or the Sunday morning wedding brunch. The next moment you’re gone. In the manner of a ghost.” — Slate. See Hubpages for an exploration of the expression’s origins, which are basically unknown,

To get someone’s Irish up: get someone’s back up, make someone angry. “Fig. … Bob had his Irish up all day yesterday. I don’t know what was wrong.” (McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs). Etymonline dates the meaning “temper, passion” to 1834, in American English (first attested in the writings of Davy Crockett), “from the legendary pugnacity of the Irish”.

To welsh on someone: to renege on a betting debt. In 2012, the BBC reported the following: “A UK cabinet minister has apologised for using the term “welshed” in the House of Commons. Education secretary Michael Gove told MPs he’d been invited by a Labour MP to visit the Potteries in Staffordshire but “welshed on the deal”.” The OED — as quoted on stackexchange — says of the verb welsh or welch: “Origin uncertain; perhaps < Welsh adj., on account of alleged dishonesty of Welsh people (see note). … Sometimes considered offensive in view of the conjectured connection with Welsh people.” Um — duh.

A German goiter: a beer belly. “Our culture is inseparable from our language. And what may come from drinking all that beer? Some people, and not just those from Wisconsin, may call the oversized stomach a Milwaukee goiter or a German goiter.” (from Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State, ed. Purnell, Raimy, Salmons)

Pardon my French: used to apologize for swearing. “The phrase began to appear around the first third of the nineteenth century, the excuse version then being more common. This is a typical early example: “Dreadful good brandy o’ yourn. Ha! ha! ha! My respects. Excuse my French.” (Marian Rooke, by Henry Sedley, 1865). … The background is the centuries-old adversarial relationship between the English and the French, which had culminated in the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the century. French had long appeared as one element in deprecatory formations, often with implications of sexual adventurousness or explicitness — French pox (syphilis), French letter (condom), and French novel and French print (pornographic material) — together with French leave (going somewhere without asking permission). There is a parallel with the Dutch, who had been maritime competitors of the English in the seventeenth century and whose name appears in such formations as Dutch uncle and Dutch comfort.” (World Wide Words)

To take French leave/ a French exit: see Irish goodbye and Pardon my French above

Speaking Double Dutch: nonsense; gibberish; a language that’s hard to understand. “The Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th and 18th centuries were acrimonious even by the usual standards of war. Following the conflicts the English came to hold the Dutch in very low regard and as a consequence there are numerous English phrases which portray them in an unflattering light, often as skinflints or drunkards. The common strand in all of these disparaging ‘Dutch’ expressions is that anything Dutch is the opposite of what it ought to be. … Another reason for the English to have held on so long to hostile stereotyping of the Dutch [is] the link with the UK’s 20th century military rivals, the Germans. ‘Dutch’ was originally the generic name for both Germans and, as they were formally called, Hollanders. High Dutch was the language of southern Germany and Low Dutch the language of The Netherlands. Double Dutch is in fact a synonym for High Dutch and as such is a slur on the Germans rather than the Dutch, although the distinction may not have been apparent to the average 18th century English sailor.” (Phrase Finder)

Etymonline adds more examples: “Since c. 1600, Dutch (adj.) has been a “pejorative label pinned by English speakers on almost anything they regard as inferior, irregular, or contrary to ‘normal’ (i.e., their own) practice” [Rawson]. E.g. Dutch treat (1887), Dutch uncle (1838), etc. — probably exceeded in such usage only by Indian and Irish– reflecting first British commercial and military rivalry and later heavy German immigration to U.S.” Also: Dutch courage – brash bravery induced by drink – 1826. Dutch wife: the OED dates it to 1891: J. S. Farmer Slang II. 349   Dutch-wife, a bolster.

It’s all Greek to me: I can’t understand any of it. The phrase is often attributed to Shakespeare, since he used it in his play Julius Caesar* (1599). However, as the linguist Ben Zimmer explained on Word Routes, “the ‘Greek to me’ phrase was in circulation for at least a few decades before Julius Caesar. In 1566, the English poet George Gascoigne used it in the translation of an Italian comedy by Ludovico Ariosto. Gascoigne was likely playing on much older notions of Greek as an impenetrable language. … One theory of the phrase’s origins goes back to medieval monks copying Latin manuscripts. The monks were not always well-equipped to handle Greek quotations in the Latin texts and would sometimes leave the annotation,Graecum est; non legitur: ‘This is Greek; it cannot be read.'”

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts: Don’t trust your enemies. “An allusion to the story of the wooden horse of Troy, used by the Greeks to trick their way into the city. It is recorded in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 2, 19 BC: ‘Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.'” (Phrase Finder.  By the way, read the full article to learn the origin of the related phrase “beware of geeks bearing gifs”)

Reverse Polish: “In recent years the computing term ‘reverse Polish’ has come to be synonymous with incomprehensibility. In fact ‘reverse Polish’ is a structured notation of formulae to enable machine calculations and is not open to interpretation or ambiguity. Nevertheless, many people find it confusing.” (Phrase Finder)

To sell ice to an Eskimo: To persuade people to go against their best interests or to accept something unnecessary or preposterous.

To play Russian roulette: The practice of loading a bullet into one chamber of a revolver, spinning the cylinder, and then pulling the trigger while pointing the gun at one’s own head. Metaphorically: an activity that is potentially very dangerous. As Straight Dope explains: “The earliest known use of the term is from “Russian Roulette,” a short story by Georges Surdez in the January 30, 1937 issue of Collier’s magazine. A Russian sergeant in the French foreign legion asks the narrator:

“Feldheim … did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?” When I said I had not, he told me all about it. When he was with the Russian army in Rumania, around 1917, and things were cracking up, so that their officers felt that they were not only losing prestige, money, family, and country, but were being also dishonored before their colleagues of the Allied armies, some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, in a cafe, at a gathering of friends, remove a cartridge from the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head, and pull the trigger. There were five chances to one that the hammer would set off a live cartridge and blow his brains all over the place. Sometimes it happened, sometimes not.”

Chinese whispers: 1) a game in which a message is passed on, in a whisper, by each of a number of people, so that the final version of the message is often radically changed from the original; 2) any situation where information is passed on in turn by a number of people, often becoming distorted in the process. (Collins English Dictionary)

“The etymology of the term “Chinese whispers” is uncertain, but it is widely suspected to be related to an analogy concerning the great linguistic differences between English and Chinese. What is implied is that a phrase used in the game will eventually become as foreign to its original English meaning as something spoken in Chinese. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the game also has been called Russian gossip or Russian scandal.” (WiseGeek) According to PhraseFinder, “the use in a more general sense, to describe everyday misstelling of stories, began as recently as the 1980s. It first started appearing in print and in online postings in Usenet newsgroups in 1989. This was probably a consequence of the use of ‘Chinese Whispers’ as the name of a track on the 1985 album Stereotomy by the English rock group The Alan Parsons Project.”

Chinese wall: a strong barrier; especially  a serious obstacle to understanding. From Chinese Wall, a defensive wall built in the 3d century b.c. between China and Mongolia. First Known Use: 1900. (Merriam-Webster).

Easy peasy Japanesey: Easy. Because it rhymes?

Indian giver: an American expression to describe a person who gives a gift and later wants it back, or something equivalent in return. As PhraseFinder explains, the expression “derives from the alleged practise of American Indians of taking back gifts from white settlers. It is more likely that the settlers wrongly interpreted the Indians’ loans to them as gifts. … The phrase is quite early in the history of the the USA. Thomas Hutchinson described the term as proverbial as early as 1765, in his The history of the Province of Massachusetts Bay: “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” Read NPR’s in-depth article on the history of this offensive phrase.

Indian file:  “Another term for single file. Mid 18th century: so called because it was believed that North American Indians usually marched in this order.” (OED)

Indian summer:  A period of unusually dry, warm weather occurring in late autumn. A period of happiness or success occurring late in life. (OED) According to Etymonline: “spell of warm, dry, hazy weather after the first frost” (happening anywhere from mid-September to nearly December, according to location), 1774, North American English (also used in eastern Canada), perhaps so called because it was first noted in regions then still inhabited by Indians, in the upper Mississippi valley west of the Appalachians, or because the Indians first described it to the Europeans. No evidence connects it with the color of fall leaves, or to a season of renewed Indian attacks on settlements due to renewed warm weather (a widespread explanation dating at least to the 1820s). It is the American version of British All-Hallows summer, French été de la Saint-Martin (feast day Nov. 11), etc. Also colloquial was St. Luke’s summer (orlittle summer), period of warm weather occurring about St. Luke’s day (Oct. 18).”

African grape / golf ballA watermelon. “From the purported fondness for this by those of African descent.” (Dictionary of American Slang, by Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD. and Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D.)

To jew someone: “to cheat, to drive a hard bargain,” 1824, from Jew (n.) (cf. gyp, welshetc.). The campaign to eliminate it in early 20c was so successful that people began to avoid the noun and adjective, too, and started using Hebrew instead. “Now I’ll say ‘a Jew’ and just the word Jew sounds like a dirty word and people don’t know whether to laugh or not.” [Lenny Bruce (1925-1966)]” (Etymonline)

To gyp someone: meaning to cheat someone. “”Gyp” or “gip” most likely evolved as a shortened version of “gypsy” — more correctly known as the Romani, an ethnic group now mostly in Europe and America. The Romani typically traveled a lot and made their money by selling goods. Business disputes naturally arose, and the masses started thinking of Romani as swindlers.” (Business Insider)

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*Casca talking about Cicero, a learned scholar in Greek:

“Cassius: Did Cicero say any thing?
Casca: Ay, he spoke Greek.
Cassius: To what effect?
Casca: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”

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