I was told that the word uppity has some racial connotations originating from the times of segregation in the South. I never thought of it as such. I kind of like the sound of the word but was wondering if it should be avoided in the presence of black people.
The first recorded use of uppity, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, was in an Uncle Remus story about 7 years after Reconstruction ended (1873): "uppity (adj.) 1880, from up + -ity; originally used by blacks of other blacks felt to be too self-assertive (first recorded use is in "Uncle Remus"). The parallel British variant uppish (1670s) originally meant "lavish;" the sense of "conceited, arrogant" being first recorded 1734."
The standard collocation is "uppity [N-word]". This unfortunate history notwithstanding, it's an interesting and useful word, I think, to describe people who are too presumptuous and who exude the unjustified self-importance usually associated with the absurd contemporary notions some folks have about their social and intellectual equality in a spate of societies that falsely advertise their egalitarianism and commitment to "diversity".
The world is replete with pecking orders, at least one of which everyone belongs to and in which everyone has a place. Try to peck the hens above your station and you're uppity to them, no question about it. Your peers and others beneath your level in the pecking order might consider you a "pecking order hero" or a "freedom fighter" for daring to contravene convention, but most uppity folks are just like Bobby Riggs when push comes to shove: they're less than they thought they were and should not have acted as if they were better.
Given the history of the word, it is wise not to use it when it is more than likely to be considered racist and offensive, even if it's qualified to make clear that there's no racist or sexist connotation in your usage: those connotations can't be avoided. Use a synonym like presumptuous, audacious, cheeky, pretentious, or snobbish and you won't get into trouble for being politically incorrect, only for being critical.
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Dictionaries do not note any derogatory connotations while etymonline states that uppity was first used by blacks of other blacks. But apparently, it is considered to be a racist term—at least by some—in the US.
The adjective's history has come into focus a couple of times in the last few years. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune,
In November 2011, it was Rush Limbaugh's comment which stirred things up once again:
A language blog over at The Baltimore Sun covers the racist connotations of uppity in great detail. The author cites the following excerpt from the OED:
He also does not believe that the racist overtones are dated and notes its relatively recent employment by a member of the US supreme court.
I guess that this should be enough reason to avoid using uppity in the presence of African Americans and specifically, to avoid using it to describe them.
It was quite common, and not only in the South, for white people to characterize as uppity black people who were simply asking to be treated as equals. It has also been used that way to describe women in similar circumstances. Indeed, I suppose some people still use it so. I would not avoid the word entirely on that account, but I would never use it of a person of color or of a woman, even if it were strictly accurate to do so, lest my meaning be misunderstood or lest, even if my meaning were not misunderstood, painful associations should be gratuitously dredged up.