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5 Cancelled Terms & Sayings

December 20, 2021 by ProofreadingPal in Writing Guides

It seems obvious that if a saying, phrase, or term reasonably offends people (i.e., we wouldn’t like it if it were about us), then society should stop using it.

But there is a downside to this. Several phrases have been cancelled in recent years for good reasons, but there have been no good phrases to replace them. This gap in appropriate language can leave those who don’t mean to offend scrambling. The sayings were just so darn useful.

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Obligatory Disclaimer

I am not talking about being sad that “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,/Catch a [hateful word] by the toe” has been replaced with “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,/Catch a tiger by the toe” and the like. That and other similar sayings derive no meaning from the racial/sexist/classist epithet. Those are just jerk things to say and easy enough to avoid.

I’m also not talking about phrases with ghoulish pasts, like “Ring around the rosy” (probably about the plague) and “Drink the Kool-Aid” (as to buy into the BS). Life is ghoulish. Deal with it.

I’m talking about how new scientific or cultural knowledge has rendered some useful phrases incorrect or inappropriate, and we have yet to come up with a new way to express what those phrases mean.

Low Man on the Totem Pole

This was an incredibly useful saying to explain someone’s place in the pecking order. It doesn’t mean “last in line” or “dogsbody.” It is a useful visual image of being oppressed by other people, feeling their weight on you, and generally being pushed into the ground.

Then it became common knowledge that in Native American culture, being the high man on the totem pole actually means you are standing on the shoulders of others. The guy on the bottom is the most impressive, most important, most inspirational person. Being the low man on the totem pole means you’re revered.

This is all fine, but this was a really useful phrase, and we have not come up with a saying to replace it. We’ve not even come close. “Last in the pecking order” doesn’t cut it.

It’s Going to Give Me an Ulcer

Here’s another wonderful phrase, meaning it’s going to stress me out so badly it will make me sick, that has had no replacement. Thanks to the incredible work of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren (who won Nobel Prizes for it), we now know that peptic ulcers are bacterial infections. No milk, no meditation, no counseling were the cure, just a broad-spectrum antibiotic.

But in terms of cultural sayings, we’ve been robbed. There’s “You drive me to drink” and “You drive me up the wall,” but they don’t mean the same thing at all. Getting an ulcer from stress was a great saying about one’s health being impacted by stress. “This is bad for my blood pressure” is close but, seriously, no cigar.

Indian Giver

OK, so this one is racist, and some of you may rightfully not have heard of it, but it uniquely described someone who pretends to give you something and then attaches strings to it or just outright demands it back. I think of weddings: “I said you could use our garden for your ceremony, but you didn’t invite my friend, so now you can’t.”

People would say, “Indian giver.”

The phrase originally came from the idea that when British colonists came to America, they supposedly were told by Native Americans that they could “take” the land they wanted to build on, and then were later confronted by Native Americans who didn’t like that there was now a fence around the land.

This expression comes from a misunderstanding of Native American nomadic culture, and it’s been justifiably deep-sixed for a while. But again, we haven’t come up with another term for it, probably because it would require another racist phrase.

Sweating Like a Whore in Church

Wow. This one is pretty bad. As an ahem-year-old woman, I heard this often growing up. While there are many judgmental people who might still use this phrase, for the more mainstream, there has been a growing awareness that the New Testament is heavily into forgiving women driven into poverty and then prostitution by a lack of social support.

It’s so easy to say, “Then just don’t use that phrase,” but again, it captures a specific situation of knowing you’re a sinner and sitting where your particular type of sin is front and foremost. It’s kind of like “being on the spot,” but not really.

Citizen’s Arrest

I grew up with people using this phrase for times when people wanted to assert their authority in numerous ways. I thought for a long while it was a made-up expression for people who thought they had a right to stop their fellow citizens until the cops came. However, the recent Arbery murder has brought to light (for me, at least) not only that some people think this is a real thing but also that the concept comes from white people who were catching runaway slaves.


Yet again, we don’t have a substitute for the phrase in the softer meaning. For example, when we see something horrible on a subway and snap a pic of it, it would be so useful to say, “Citizen’s arrest,” but we shouldn’t. And it’s good that we know why we shouldn’t.

So although I applaud the reasons for cancelling the phrases, I really wish someone would up with replacements. The whole thing is going to give me a, uh, a headache.


Julia H.

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