The opposite of an ethnic slur
March 16, 2011 9:53 AM   Subscribe

We're all familiar with ethnic slurs, but the ethnic name "Sherpa" has acquired the generic meaning of "guide" or "special assistant," particularly in diplomatic parlance as related to summit conferences such as the G8 and G20, where heads of state bring along "sherpas" as personal envoys and advisors (examples: 1 2 3). What other ethnic terms have acquired positive, politically correct secondary meanings?
posted by beagle to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by k8t at 9:58 AM on March 16, 2011

posted by k8t at 9:58 AM on March 16, 2011

posted by k8t at 9:58 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by k8t at 9:59 AM on March 16, 2011

A mandarin has come to mean any high ranking official.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:59 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

That's tricky territory, because these terms having acquired "positive, politically correct secondary meanings" is in the eye of the beholder.

Positive, for one thing. Diplomats may use the term "sherpa" in a positive sense, but for many people the term connotes what is essentially a human beast of burden. I wouldn't be thrilled to have a boss refer to me as "my sherpa."

Politically correct, for another. These terms may be appropriated by the culture at large, but that doesn't mean they're politically correct. One person's "politically correct" is another person's "ignorant of the underlying history."

For example a lot of people are unaware that the term "Indian Summer" leverages the phrase "Indian giver." Or that the term "gyp" refers to the Romany people (a.k.a. gypsies).
posted by ErikaB at 10:01 AM on March 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

Diplomats may use the term "sherpa" in a positive sense, but for many people the term connotes what is essentially a human beast of burden.

The people who lug the stuff are just called porters. Sherpas are highly skilled guides and mountaineers. It would make sense, linguistically, for a guide at a summit to be called a Sherpa.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:12 AM on March 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

While it's true that offensiveness is subjective, ErikaB, that doesn't mean there aren't consensuses about what is and isn't likely to be meant and heard in good faith.

How about "Yankee," as in "Yankee ingenuity?"

In case it's also interesting, "Brother" or "Sister" is sort of an example of the reverse -- originally a positive non-ethnic term, now with non-derogatory ethnic associations.
posted by foursentences at 10:14 AM on March 16, 2011

I think "mandarin" is similar to several other terms denoting someone with high status, wealth and (primarily) power. See nabob or czar/tsar, along with the definition of mandarin.

Interestingly, all of these have come to mean "high ranking official" in some way or another, but they certainly carry particular connotations (which I wouldn't necessarily say are positive). "Nabob" is often heard as part of "nattering nabob," and it seems similar to the use of "mandarin" as not just an official but a bureaucrat. "Czar" implies all-encompassing power, but also a certain degree of ruthlessness. In all cases, however, the connotation of power seems to usurp the other implications.
posted by Madamina at 10:14 AM on March 16, 2011

Tsar/czar? It's usually a pretty neutral term though, not specifically positive, but not negative either as far as I can tell.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 10:15 AM on March 16, 2011

"Brahmin" is an ethnically-correlated Indian caste that now connotes intelligence and power.
posted by foursentences at 10:17 AM on March 16, 2011

posted by Burhanistan at 10:21 AM on March 16, 2011

"Young Turks" which can be used in reference to any group within in an organization which seeks power to implement a modernizing (apparently sometimes specifically progressive, but I'm not sure about that) agenda and struggles against entrenched old guard interests.
posted by Bwithh at 10:23 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, "Rabbi", denoting a person higher up in your organization who acts as an informal mentor and advisor (and perhaps sponsor) to you about the organization's internal politics and culture. Especially in some US police circles (apparently originated in the NYPD but also heard in The Wire's portrayal of Baltimore's police department).
posted by Bwithh at 10:26 AM on March 16, 2011

"Bohemian," now meaning "hip, young, countercultural, and artsy."

"Goth," now meaning "inclined to anachronistic black clothing."
posted by foursentences at 10:27 AM on March 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by hal_c_on at 10:27 AM on March 16, 2011

posted by bonobothegreat at 10:32 AM on March 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Bohemian's been meaning artsy and young for over a century. La Boheme.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:37 AM on March 16, 2011

A little different spin -- Solon was a person, and a "solon" is a older term for a legislator or bureaucrat. The word even gets used as a sports team nickname.

Similarly, Don is an honorific title that was also used as a sports team nickname. But of course, it has both positive and negative connotations, depending on your viewpoint.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:40 AM on March 16, 2011

Samaritan is a funny one, because the story of the Good Samaritan is not premised on the essential goodness of the Samaritans, but rather on the exceptionalness of finding a Samaritan who is Good. Many Jews did not get along with the Samaritans at the time, so there was extra punch in a story about a Samaritan who would treat the audience better than the audience might treat him.

Imagine a parable about "the Good Republican" on MeFi, for example.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:53 AM on March 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

posted by vanar sena at 11:52 AM on March 16, 2011

Scotch (e.g. scotch tape)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:54 AM on March 16, 2011

Great suggestions — to clarify "ethnic terms", I'm referring to words describing groups of people — nationalities, tribes, races, clans. Lots of the suggestions meet that definition, but things like chief, rabbi, sultan and czar are titles of rank or profession, not ethnic groups.
posted by beagle at 12:01 PM on March 16, 2011

posted by Burhanistan at 12:06 PM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

the term "mormon" was originally an insult. the church of jesus christ of latter day saints still struggles with its relationship with the word, but they aren't as opposed to it as they once were (going so far to call one of their newer PR campaigns "what's a mormon?"). now it's just the word that describes the people, like baptists or catholics.
posted by nadawi at 12:17 PM on March 16, 2011

posted by gnutron at 12:18 PM on March 16, 2011

posted by pompomtom at 3:40 PM on March 16, 2011

Given that a "yenta" is a gossip or a nag, I'm gonna have to say that it's not exactly a positive term.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:49 PM on March 16, 2011

So far (eliminating suggestions which are not ethnic groups as such, correct me if I've missed one), we've got:
Magi (Zoroastrians, has come to mean "wise men")
Mandarin (speakers of Chinese dialect, has come to mean high-ranking officials)
Yankee (New Englanders, has come to mean thrifty or ingenious people)
Brahmin (members of Indian caste, has come to mean wielders of power or intelligence)
Bohemian (residents of Bohemia, has come to mean hip, countercultural, artsy)
Goth (Germanic tribe, now means adherent to post-punk subculture given to particular aesthetic including dark clothing etc.)
Samaritan (Middle Eastern tribe, has come to mean person who stops to help the injured regardless of status)
Gurkha (Nepali tribe known for bravery an strength — although I'm not sure this has another generic meaning)
posted by beagle at 5:11 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Trojans, regarded as hard-working or industrious - as in the (slightly old-fashioned phrased) "work like a Trojan".
posted by Electric Dragon at 5:49 PM on March 16, 2011

posted by Sticherbeast at 6:09 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

My friends describe people with highly developed technical skills as 'ninjas':

'Man, that drummer is a total ninja'.

'Ask Leon abou that lease, he's a property law ninja'.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:38 PM on March 16, 2011

Gurkha is not a Nepalese tribe. Gurkhas come from a number of ethnic communities in Nepal - the name specifically refers to Nepalese soldiers mainly in British and Indian armies but also in a few other militaries and also sometimes working as mercenaries.

You have the idea about Mandarin the wrong way around. Mandarin is a term of mixed origins, but in Western usage, for Chinese imperial civil servants. It was already in use BEFORE the language was named Mandarin in the Western usage. The dialect (the language of rule in Imperial China and modern China too effectively) in Chinese was known as "the language of officials" and so the already existing term Mandarin was applied to describe that dialect.

Zoroastrianism is a religion, not a ethnic group. I'm not sure if Brahmins can be described as an ethnic gropu either.
posted by Bwithh at 9:22 PM on March 17, 2011

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