Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wait. I said what?

I read a tweet a few days ago that sent me off on a thinking binge. It concerned the use of the term "cotton pickin' " and what's perceived as its racist undertones. 

That never occurred to me. Not once before reading the tweet. 

(Lest there be a question, yes, I'm from the South and I'm fully aware of what that could connote.) 

That cotton-pickin' revelation brought to mind another term that, until college or perhaps later, I had used: Indian giver. 

The racist tone should have been apparent, I know, except for this: I always thought the phrase slammed white people. More specifically, the white men who ran the United States of America. 

Hand to God, I believed that the act of giving something to someone and then taking it back - "Indian giving" - was in reference to the fact that the U.S. government would allocate land to various Native American tribes, say "It's yours as long as this nation stands" and then, predictably, a decade or so later would say, "Hah, gotcha! Just kidding! Gimme it!" 

Now, of course, I know better. Nevertheless, when one of my well-meaning and equally liberal-white-guilty friends called me on the use of the term, I was stunned. 

So, the cotton-pickin' tweet sent me to ruminating until I could bear it no longer and looked online to see how racist I'd been this time.

What I learned: Cotton picking (or pickin' - from the South, remember?) is a general term of disapproval, of something that is troublesome or a nuisance.

Its origin: Cotton pickin' began life in the late 1700s and differs from the 19th-century Dixie term, "cottonpicker," in that the latter was derogatory and racist, whereas "cotton-picking" referred directly to the difficulty and harshness of gathering the crop. This didn't extend to the specific expression "keep your cotton-pickin' hands off me." This no doubt alludes to the horny, calloused (and usually black) hands that picked cotton. 

The article (found at, by the way) continued: 
While not originating the term, Bugs Bunny can claim to have done more to fix it into the language than the rest of rabbitkind, especially in its most often used form "Wait just a cotton-picking minute." There's an example in "Bully for Bugs," 1953: "Just a cotton-pickin' minute, this don't look like the Coachella Valley to me!" 

It was an incredible relief to know that I'm not more racist than Bugs.


  1. Though to be fair, Bugs & Co. were pret-ty danged racist back in the day. Of course, so was Mickey Mouse, but we don't talk about that. :-)

    At least we know "Great Day!" instead of "G-ddamn!" is safe, right? (or is that one just a My Family thing?)

    Thanks for the nod!

  2. That is very true about Bugs and the gang, as well as Mickey's peeps.
    I also discovered interesting bits about some other phrases (hip-hip hooray, for one, as well as bugger). Humans are creative about their racism.

  3. The phrase I felt the most horrible for using when I realized it was racist was 'I've been gypped...' just a horrible term for 'Gypsies.' Nobody even thinks of it being that way - I felt awful, I tell you!