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.
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.
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.
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.
Can anyone see the irony in this? By the very nature of using this word with someone, the user implies they are "better" than the person they are talking to. I find this hilarious.
I am a black American who is a Canadian resident. A police Constable called me "uppity" because I had the unmitigated gall to tell her that I did not want my child left at a home where someone was emotionally abusive towards him. Her response, "I'm sick of your uppity attitude."
I was disgusted. So, I am stepping outside of my station how? I was being arrogant how?
BTW - The party line tends to be Canadians are not racist. While most Canadians I have met have not been racist towards me...this officer was.
When stating that "uppity" is a term "blacks" used to refer to other "blacks", it is incredulous that the word is taken as canon since J.C. Harris is a fiction writer and folklorist. Was Harris truly an authority on slave language? Regardless, in the 1800s, blacks tended to borrow vocabulary from their owners. Ultimately, "uppity" is a term invented by J.C. Harris to depict language he believed was used by blacks in his story to describe other blacks.
Uppity is a degrading word to anyone it is directed towards.