Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World


Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the word “uppity”.

Last week a member of the House of Representatives, Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, created a stir when he used the word uppity in conjunction with Michelle and Barack Obama. As reported in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, Westmoreland said “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks they’re uppity.”

The remark has drawn wide-spread coverage, and no small amount of condemnation from people who are of the opinion that uppity is what has been delicately termed ‘a racially-tinged’ word. Westmoreland himself has staked out the rather bold position that it is possible to have lived in the South for some five decades and not be aware of the potentially offensive meaning of this word, and offers his own ostensible ignorance as proof of this.

The question of whether the Representative from Georgia is or is not lying has been written about in many other places, as has the question of what would be the appropriate response from the Senator from Illinois or his wife; so have all the other questions of propriety of social discourse, and I’ll not mention them further. What I find interesting is just how difficult it is to really capture the nuance and breadth of a word such as uppity in the dictionary.

It appears to be widely acknowledged that the word has connotations of racism, at least as it was applied to the Obamas. Indeed, much of the commentary has focused on the fact that it would be surprising (or hard to believe) that Westmoreland did not know that he was using a racist turn of phrase. And yet a brief check of several contemporary general dictionaries (the OED, Merriam-Webster, the Encarta) and we find that none of them include this information in their definitions, or in a usage note.

So how should a dictionary address such an issue? It seems like an unwieldy solution to suggest that it could specify that such a word should be used with caution under some narrowly defined set of circumstances (such as ‘may be perceived as insensitive or racist when used in a disparaging sense by a Caucasian speaker referring to a non-Caucasian person or group’). And yet it also seems undeniable that it is in fact used this way, if not by Westmoreland than definitely by others.

One way to address this would be to show the connotations of the word through its use in citations, as the OED does with so much of our vocabulary. But although the OED provides nine examples of uppity being used, from 1880 through 1982, only one of them shows the word being used in an obviously racist sense. And some other dictionaries do not provide such examples at all (such as the American Heritage online dictionary, which has a citation taken from a New York Times article from 1981, which says that some members of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet thought that Alexander Haig “was getting a little uppity and needed to be slapped down” – no one will read that as being racially tinged).

I wonder if there is a limit on how well a dictionary can really capture the nuance of a language in such circumstances. Especially when one bears in mind that Senator Obama’s running mate, Senator Biden, was similarly taken to task for his use of the words clean and articulate some months ago. I don’t know whether they were intended as implicit slights (what reason is there to think that a well-respected senator would be anything but clean or articulate?), but I can see how it would be possible – and yet I’ve not found a dictionary that documents that these specific words are sometimes used thusly.

It is interesting to me that, Westmoreland’s protestations aside, uppity falls into the category of words of which we can say that we “just know” what they mean, without their being defined in a reference work. It exists with an unwritten social definition, and I cannot help but imagine what other words have come and gone through the last few hundred years, unremarked upon by dictionaries past, yet implicitly understood by the speakers of the language.

Recent Comments

  1. Derry

    A quick straw poll seems to confirm my gut feeling that “uppity” is used with class implications, not racist, in British English. One person said “You could use in a racist way if you thought race governed your position.” It smacks of servants and the nouveaux riche.

    I’m more worried that I can’t make sense of the sentence. I’m okay up to “class” but who’s the individual and who thinks?

  2. mollymooly

    Looking at the British SARA corpus, the racial connotations are not so prominent as in the U.S.; but the word seems often to be used in a double-layered way: the author describes someone else as viewing a third person as “uppity”; implying a criticism of the second person by the author for holding such views. It’s a kind of half-taboo word, which you can mention but not use.

  3. Anna

    I must say as someone who lived in Georgia for my first 3 decades (the last 5 years in NYC)and as someone with a graduate degree from an elite Northeast university I never knew there was a racial undertone to “uppity” until I read this passage. I had heard that Westmoreland offended some by calling Obama “uppity.” I thought this was upseting because it brought back the whole “Obama is elitist” nonsense.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever used the word “uppity” but my grandmother did quite frequently – always in reference to white people. She used as a synonym of “snobby”.

    I most assuredly am not out to defend Westmoreland and shutter at any commonalities with an ignorant man who fought hard for the 10 commandments to be displayed in a public building but couldn’t name a single commandment during his appearance on the Colbert Report.

    I guess I was ignorant on “uppity.” I can’t help but wonder how many people I’ve offended by unknowingly using potentially offencvie words.

  4. […] or England or Israel or France or Pakistan because, while they already have WMD’s, the “uppity” standard does not apply to them for that very reason. Having joined the concert of civilized […]

  5. Slang 101 : OUPblog

    […] specializes in actions for personal injuries). This feature could particularly come in handy for politicians, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that term was offensive to [insert cultural or racial group […]

  6. Deb

    I just told someone to stop being so uppity up; I was surprised when the words came tumbling out of my mouth cause I have never said this before. But her whole demure changed for the better. Was shocked.

Comments are closed.