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February 13, 2007

It's a Pity about 'Uppity'

A new Salon piece on Barack Obama details his ascendance from a mediocre—and "smug"—politician to a bona fide celebrity. But an early version of the front-page teaser didn't use the word "smug." Instead, Obama was characterized as "uppity" (check out the screenshot at Daily Kos.) Plenty of readers were upset by the description, Salon quickly changed it, and Salon managing editor Jeanne Carstensen apologized profusely for what she called a "gaffe" in the comments. What's all the fuss about the word?

After all, "uppity" is defined as presumptuously arrogant (according to The Free Dictionary), which seems to fit Obama's description in the article slightly better than "smug," which connotes self-satisfaction more than arrogance. (A sample line from the piece: "[Obama] wasn't even trying to conceal his impatience with a mere state Senate peer, or with this grungy necessity of campaigning.")

But using "uppity" when describing a black person is pretty much off-limits because racists angered by outspoken black people often did (and still sometimes do) use the word in front of "nigger." A recent column in the Armenian Weekly devoted to recently slain journalist Hrant Dink (a subject of a recent Zooming In article on Gelf) sarcastically uses the phrase to explain why Dink's killers wanted him dead—he was "an Armenian who believed he had rights in Turkey because it was the country of his birth." (Later, the phrase in the column was edited to read "uppity Negro.")

"Uppity," though, is still used by many in the press to describe people (who aren't black) and things. While the use of the word in the New York Times is generally (and weirdly) reserved for food reviews, it has also been used to describe, variously: a reaction from Hillary Clinton's press secretary; Medusa; a private school; and pretend modesty. Last month, The Washington Post printed an article on stem cell research stating, "NIH spokesman John Burklow denied that the agency is getting uppity." The word succinctly expresses a complicated sentiment, and the one other word that has a similar meaning—"overweening"—is so rare as to be rendered impractical, and possibly pretentious. If the media decided to use "overweening" as a replacement, that very act could be looked upon by some as uppity.

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- posted on Feb 07, 08
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