Earlier this year, I wrote about how George Orwell had warned years ago that political words like “socialism,” “democracy” and “freedom” were losing their meaning. 

Now with protests following the killing of George Floyd and other high-profile Black Lives Matter cases, there is renewed emphasis on minimizing historical figures who promoted racism and words that perpetuate it. 

A local writer alerted me to a recent article by CNN.com writers Scottie Andrew and Harmeet Kaur titled “Everyday words and phrases that have racist connotations,” which explores the racist origins of common phrases ranging from “master bedroom” to “peanut gallery” and “cake walk.”

It notes that the terms “master bedroom” and “master bathroom” are causing concern in the real estate industry, where roughly 40% of Zillow listings use the word “master” to describe the largest bedroom or bath in a house. 

The word “master” has obvious slavery-era connotations, and that has prompted the Houston Association of Realtors to say it will replace “master” with “primary” when describing bedrooms and bathrooms, according to the CNN article.  

Other uses of “master” have also drawn attention, including in computer technology, where engineers used the terms “master” and “slave” to describe components in which one process or device controls another. 

That may soon be a thing of the past, the article added, because the programming language Drupal replaced “master/slave” terminology with “primary/replica” in 2014, with other programmers more recently opting for “leader/follower” or other variations.

At least one sports writer has suggested that golf’s Masters Tournament could benefit from a name change. The Masters is one of golf’s four major tournaments and is held in Georgia at Augusta National Golf Club, which was criticized in the past for being slow to admit minority and female members. 

CNN noted that golf legend Bobby Jones, who co-founded Augusta National, was initially opposed to calling the tournament the Masters, because he thought the name too presumptuous. But after the first five tournaments, Jones conceded and allowed the name. 

The term “peanut gallery” seems relatively benign today, particularly to baby boomers who grew up listening to the Howdy Doody radio and television shows of the 1950s where live audiences of children were frequently referred to as “the peanut gallery.”

But the term has a darker origin, according to Jeffrey Barg, who writes the “Angry Grammarian” column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The first documented usage, Barg wrote recently, was in 1867 by the New Orleans Times-Picayune for a review of a variety show, in which Black attendees were degraded by being referred to as “the darkies in the peanut gallery.”

The term “cake walk” today describes an easy victory, but the phrase originated with a mimicking dance performed by plantation slaves. 

The dance was intended to mock the strutting of white owners with a high-leg prance and backward tilt of the head, shoulders and upper torso. But naive plantation owners saw the movements as unskillful attempts “to be like us,” and they held contests with a cake as the prize. Later, the cake-walk idiom became a mainstay of minstrel shows, according to the CNN article. 

The purpose of other racial terms is generally understood, but unfortunately they are still in use. One example is the word “uppity,” which has been applied to President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle, the biracial Duchess of Sussex. 

“It was and remains an insulting way to describe a Black person because it suggests that they are ‘too big for their britches’ or are demonstrating a sense of dignity or autonomy they are not supposed to possess,” Krystal Smalls, an assistant professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Illinois, told CNN.