Uppity: Snobbish, presumptuous, putting on airs. Also: arrogant; taking liberties beyond one's station. American slang, formed from up plus an adjectival ending suggestive of words such as haughty and snooty.
Uppity entered the southern American vernacular more than a century ago; its first published appearance was in 1880, in the Uncle Remus stories written by Joel Chandler Harris. (A British equivalent, uppish, had been popular since the mid-eighteenth century.) Less widely used synonyms include biggity, hincty, and seddity. Although any of these terms were (and are) used by African-Americans to disparage one another, uppity acquired the status of racial epithet when used by whites to describe blacks who appeared not to "know their place."
Uppity made headlines last week when a two-term Republican congressman from Georgia's eighth district, Lynn Westmoreland, used it to refer to the Democratic candidate for president and his wife. According to The Hill, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill:
Westmoreland was discussing vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's speech with reporters outside the House chamber and was asked to compare her with Michelle Obama.
"Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they're a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they're uppity," Westmoreland said.
Asked to clarify that he used the word “uppity,” Westmoreland said, “Uppity, yeah.”
(In his blog, You Don't Say, John McIntyre tries to parse the first sentence in that quote and gives up: "The Obamas are members of an individual that thinks that they are uppity?")
Many readers, black and white, interpreted Westmoreland's comment as racist and offensive. In The Atlantic online, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:
Uppity is exactly the term white thugs and terrorists used to use for high-achieving blacks--right before they burned down their neighborhoods and ran them out of town. Only this time, they're going for the whole country.
Almost immediately, Westmoreland's spokesman claimed his boss was being misinterpreted. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (which pointed out that Westmoreland "was born and raised in the South"), Westmoreland insisted "he'd never heard 'uppity' used in a racially loaded fashion."
The flap found its way into the listserv of the American Dialect Society, where Susan Tamasi asked about the racial connotations of uppity:
Having grown up in the South, I've always known (or felt) that "uppity" is derogatory when used to describe an African American. The term "uppity nigger" definitely rings in my ears when I hear the word. When I heard of Westmoreland's gaff [sic],I almost choked. However, in conversations with other white folk over the last couple of days, it seems that this connotation is only known by about half. Some claim that it is a neutral term which simply refers to "snobby" or "elite", as Westmoreland claims.
Gregory McNamee responded:
Are your innocent interviewees under the age of 30? Perhaps the term has lost its sting among the young, but anyone of a certain age will immediately know "uppity" as a racist term with a very sharp edge, almost always combined with the N-word lest anyone miss the point.
Westmoreland is 58 years old and from rural Georgia. He claims never to have heard the derogatory term in the little mill town where he grew up. Baldly put, he's a liar--or, as the Los Angeles Times political blog puts it, "The Ticket finds it amazing that someone with such a sheltered upbringing could achieve such success in life."
(The L.A. Times blog post is here.)
McNamee also provided a 1952 citation from F. L. Allen, Big Change II. viii. 130: "The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about ‘uppity niggers’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow."
Read some of the ADS-L thread here.
Note, too, that there are a number of citations for uppity that lack a racial context (e.g., "uppity Minnesota"; "uppity, intelligent animals"; even "When did J. Crew get all uppity with an $1,800 jacket?").
Before the current controversy, Congressman Westmoreland was better known for his co-sponsorship of a bill that would have placed the Ten Commandments in both houses of Congress. When he appeared on "The Colbert Report" in 2006, Westmoreland was at a loss to name more than three of the Commandments.
Runner-up word of the week: snowbilly, "a hillbilly far from the South." Read more at Mr. Verb.
Amazing. A candidate is intelligent and well-spoken, and regardless of his challenging upbringing, is accused of being "uppity". Thanks for the discourse.
Posted by: Elise | September 08, 2008 at 08:22 AM
I find it ironic that we, in our "classless society" need a word to describe someone going "above their station."
Posted by: Barry Nordin | September 08, 2008 at 08:56 AM
Over here in Britain, you occasionally hear "uppity". It's not necessarily racially charged. I'd define it as "loud, outspoken, demanding equality" - with it usually being obvious which inequality is meant in any given circumstance. Over here I'd more expect to hear it in the context of class, employer/employee, teacher/pupil, landlord/tenant, male/female and other such inequalities, but it's very very obvious to me which inequality is meant in the context of Obama despite me never having (at least as far as I remember) heard the term in a racial context before.
Also, a bit like the n-word (or "geek", for that matter), it's not a term of abuse if you use it to describe yourself or people like yourself. To my ears, "thinks that they're uppity" sounds "they think they're courageous rebels fighting for freedom, equality and justice, when really all of those battles have been won decades ago, and they're just poseurs", but I don't think that's what's meant in this case.
Posted by: Peter | September 08, 2008 at 09:07 AM
Oh, I *LOVE* The Ticket's subtle and oblique way of calling a spade a... racist.
Posted by: TadMack | September 08, 2008 at 12:40 PM
More on the n-word check it out:
Posted by: thescoop | September 08, 2008 at 02:13 PM
No, the stupid thing is, he didn't accuse Obama or Hillary of BEING uppity.
He accused them of THINKING THEY ARE UPPITY.
To be uppity is to put on airs, to act as though you are "better than all that."
Obama thinks he is putting on airs, is what this guy said.
Nobody thinks he himself is uppity. OTHER PEOPLE think they are uppity.
(I grew up in a town w/ no blacks. You had to drive to Des Moines before you could find a black person. We used "uppity" plenty. I know it was used a lot for blacks, but it's not limited to them)
But I still think there's something really telling when he uses that word when he's talking about Obama and Hillary, regardless of what his syntax strictly parses as.
Because the ONLY people accused of being "uppity" are blacks and women.
Which means, really, he thinks the two of them are uppity.
Posted by: TootsNYC | September 10, 2008 at 11:40 AM
@TootsNYC: Good point. However, he was talking about Barack and Michelle Obama, not Hillary Clinton. (For all I know, he thinks HRC is modest, unassuming, and--what's the word?--deferential.)
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | September 10, 2008 at 11:53 AM