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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.

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I know you are asking this question in order not to cause offence, but perhaps one should avoid using racially offensive language in all contexts, not just around black people? –  donothingsuccessfully Mar 24 '13 at 8:24
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@donothingsuccessfully: this question is valuable precisely because uppity is not offensive language (racially or otherwise) but nonetheless will offend some people for historical reasons. –  TimLymington Mar 24 '13 at 14:17
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@TimLymington: Yes, it's a good question and I appreciate your distinction between offensive language and language people could be offended by. –  donothingsuccessfully Mar 24 '13 at 15:13
    
While uppity might be described as a acting outside your class or caste, for basically all of US History there has only been one real social 'lower class' - African Slaves. African-Americans naturally dislike it, and the rest of the US dislikes any aspersion that one citizen is by fiat better than another. –  Oldcat Nov 20 at 1:13

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

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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+1 For the sentence: "This unfortunate history ... and commitment to 'diversity'." –  Jim Mar 24 '13 at 3:36
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While I agree with the political commentary, it is out of place here. Answers should stay away from opinion and prescription. –  MετάEd Mar 24 '13 at 5:00
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@ MετάEd: I can't disagree more. Language is inherently political. If it weren't, then no one would ask a question like this & anyone could say anything they want to say without having to consider consequences other than being misunderstood. That just isn't the way the world works. Prescription is necessary for discussions of usage. How else can one say that if you call your neighbor "ShitForBrains" because you think he's stupid, you might get shot or punched out? If you think that's not prescription, you're looking through rose-colored glasses. [To be continued] –  user21497 Mar 24 '13 at 6:35
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@MετάEd OP requests a prescription, as do most of the questions here; and opinion, grounded in observation and experience, is what most of our answers supply. Even citing an outside source constitutes an opinion respecting that source's reliability and authority. –  StoneyB Mar 24 '13 at 7:56
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@StoneyB I think that MετάEd's main contention was that the answer went off-topic and strayed on to broader social commentary. –  donothingsuccessfully Mar 24 '13 at 8:41

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,

The word has popped up before in the Obamas' life. During the presidential campaign in September 2008, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican, touched off a firestorm by saying the Obamas looked to him as though "they're a member of an elitist class ... that thinks that they're uppity." Westmoreland later defended himself in a revealing public statement. He had "never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense," he said, in the mill town where he grew up. For a Georgia native of his years, a lot of folks found that hard to believe.

In November 2011, it was Rush Limbaugh's comment which stirred things up once again:

But this time it was reports of the first lady traveling occasionally on a separate plane from her husband that lit Limbaugh's fuse. "NASCAR people understand that's a little bit of a waste," he said. "They understand it is a little bit of uppity-ism."

There's the word. Dictionaries define the word as "arrogant," "presumptuous" and "putting on airs of superiority." But it also has strong connotations in this country's cultural history as a description for blacks who, in the view of white society, don't know their place.

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:

“1952 F. L. ALLEN Big Change II. viii. 130 The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about ‘uppity [you know which epithet I’ve deleted]’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow.”

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.

And, perhaps most notably, you may recall this passage from Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing:

"And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you."

If you still think that uppity carries no racial charge, perhaps you could ask Mr. Justice Thomas what he thinks.

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.

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+1 for your research & excellent selection of commentary, but please remember that sentences like your last one constitute prescription, which some folks think is verboten around here. And perhaps your penultimate sentence is political commentary, another no-no for some. Not for me, however. I think this kind of information's necessary to understand the whys and wherefores of usage. –  user21497 Mar 24 '13 at 7:10
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I just asked my African American friend from Texas (he also lives here in Taiwan) for his opinion about this, & he confirms that if someone uses that term to describe African Americans, it's racist, no matter who or what the user is. –  user21497 Mar 24 '13 at 9:54

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.

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During that acrimonious period during the divorce process my now ex-husband called me uppity. We are both white but my outrage came from my understanding of the origin of the word and how that meaning would apply to the husband/wife relationship. To me it clearly meant that he considered himself my superior and my inferior status entitled me to nothing unless he deigned to give it. He was totally surprised at my outraged reaction. I have no idea what he thought it meant but his words and actions clearly showed I was right on the nose. It is difficult for me to imagine a benign or neutral meaning for the word.

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