Racial Offense Taken When 'Uppity' Rolls Off Certain Tongues

The term means different things to different people, but racial element lingers.

ByABC News
September 17, 2008, 11:53 AM

Sept. 18, 2008— -- When a white congressional candidate recently referred to a black news reporter as "uppity," he coincidentally joined company with another white politician who, later that day, applied the same description to Sen. Barack and Michelle Obama.

Both of the Georgians claimed ignorance of the racial history of the word "uppity," a derogatory term applied throughout the Jim Crow South to blacks who dared to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

But for contemporary critics of the word, ignorance of the potential offense is little excuse in many cases, particularly for older white Southerners who are most likely steeped in the traditions of the old social order.

"Being from the South, people of an older generation tend to have that phrase at least ringing in the back of their head whenever the term 'uppity' is used," said Susan Tamasi, a specialist in sociolinguistics at Emory University in Atlanta.

The word "uppity," which means haughty, or arrogant, made its first appearance in the 1880s in the "Uncle Remus" stories, a series of black songs and folk tales written in slave dialect. By the 1950s, the word had adopted a virulent racial element, Tamasi said.

The 1952 edition of the Oxford dictionary listed the term "uppity (N-word)" with this definition: "Above oneself, self-important, 'jumped up,' haughty, pert, putting on airs" -- although there is race-neutral usage spanning the dictionary's history.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., said earlier this month he had no idea he was using such an incendiary term when, as reported by The Hill, he said: "Honestly, I've never paid that much attention to Michelle Obama. Just what little I've seen of her and Sen. Obama is that they're a member of an elitist class ... that thinks they're uppity."

Westmoreland, 58, and raised in the South during the height of the civil rights movement, said he never heard the term used in a demeaning manner toward blacks.