Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What's up with 'uppity'?

I'm guessing you know by now that Rush Limbaugh has called Michelle Obama "uppity" and that he was defended by Glenn Beck. A new piece on the AtlanticWire by Elsbeth Reeve starts with this:
A lot of people have no idea that the word "uppity," when applied to black people, has racist connotations, but it's getting harder and harder to understand how public figures, in particular, are able to maintain their ignorance of the term's history. President Obama has been a well-known public figure for several years and his conservative critics, in particular, keep making the "uppity" mistake. 
Gee, it's hard for me to read this even as ironic. That there might be an American English speaker who doesn't know it's racist. Maybe. I know a lot of clueless people, nobody that clueless. But can you even choke out a joke about Limbaugh and Beck not knowing exactly what they're doing? I didn't think so.

Still, there's a question in here about language use. My sense is that people don't use the word uppity much anymore except in highly ironic ways. So, I did a quick NgramViewer check on it and a set of words with closely related meanings, namely: haughty, presumptuous, conceited, arrogant. Here's the result (click to embiggen):

If you go to the NgramViewer and play around, say with shortening the time depth to 1950 or so, you'll see that uppity has actually increased in frequency, though it's stayed relatively low, compared to the others. In fact, everything else but 'arrogant' has declined over time. (Why the other words have declined is a whole nother question.)

What would account for the uptick in uppity? A simple google search didn't shed any light but I happened to try an Ngram for uppity women and uppity woman. It was about the only collocation I could come up with that sounded like anything you might hear. The result:

If you google those, you get the goldmine I didn't find with a simple(r) search. It turns out, then, that it's not just an ironic use of the term, but a kind of 'taking back' of a once-negative phrase.


Jonathon said...

I think it's only plausible deniability, not ignorance, that these people are maintaining.

Mr. Verb said...

I kind of stumbled over the article's formulation too, but I guess my real point is that denying knowledge of this doesn't seem plausible to me today, certainly not for media professionals who trade in these issues for a living. (I'm guessing we're in basic agreement here, but maybe not.)

Anonymous said...

As a man, I can only use 'uppity women' when the context makes clear and the audience will surely understand that I'm being ironic. That seems, I guess, consistent with the notion that this is 'taking back' the term.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I've never heard the word 'uppity' in a racist context before. It's not a word I use, because it sounds old-fashioned to me, but I nave no thought in my mind about it being racist.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. I guess given how infrequent it is in the Ngram data, you aren't alone in not using it, and I think it probably does strike me as old-fashioned too -- having thought about it for a couple of days, I wouldn't bet that young people know it.

Maybe that means that the generalizations in the article I quoted and my own generalizations have to be restricted to those who use the term.

Rosina Lippi Green said...

jumping in late here, but dyed in the wool southern politicians called Obama 'uppity' during the 2008 campaign and then claimed they 'didn't know' there were racist connotations. Then, other southern men (also conservative) went out of their way to say in a public setting that it's impossible -- absolutely impossible -- not to know. So I don't think plausible deniability is much of an excuse. And you know what? They don't care.

Mr. Verb said...

The last sentence is the one that matters.