Uppity

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A brief note on the intrusion of the word uppity into the U.S. presidential election. It came a while back, from congressman Lynn Westmoreland. Here's one (of a great many) reports on the event, from The Hill on 4 September:

Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland used the racially-tinged term "uppity" to describe Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama Thursday.

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.

Uproar ensued.

Westmoreland (who is white) maintained that he'd never heard the word used in a racially loaded fashion. And he consulted "the dictionary". As reported by USA Today:

"This was an adjective for elitism, not a code word. It was obviously not a racially tinged remark," said [Westmoreland's] press secretary, Brian Robinson.

Robinson subsequently said that Westmoreland had instructed his staff to check the dictionary to be sure he properly understood the meaning of the word. The spokesman then e-mailed the dictionary definition: "1. affecting an attitude of inflated self-esteem; snobbish. 2. rebelliously self-assertive; not inclined to be deferential."

The appeal to dictionaries is what I'm primarily interested in in this posting.

Brent Staples had an eloquent op-ed piece in the New York Times on Monday about the social situation — it's impossible for me to believe that Westmoreland didn't realize that uppity would evoke uppity nigger, and, more generally, references to black people who act "disrespectfully" (that is, not deferentially and subserviently) to white people or who are affluent or accomplished, "above their place" — including some poignant reflections on Barack Obama's difficult task in negotiating the shoals here: how to be firm and pointed about issues without being seen as "uppity" and so alienating many white voters he might have been able to appeal to.

That's a tricky political question (not without its linguistic interest, having to do with how issues are framed), but on to "the dictionary".

Both AHD4 and NOAD2 label uppity as "informal".

AHD4: "taking liberties or assuming airs beyond one's station; presumptuous"

NOAD2: "self-important, arrogant"

The NOAD2 definition is an abbreviated version of the OED's (where the word is labeled "colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.)"):

"above oneself, self-important, 'jumped-up'; arrogant, haughty, pert, putting on airs"

Dictionaries seem to be mute on the question of what social tinges uppity might have. But dictionaries can't be expected to insert essays on the social status of usages (by particular groups of people, in particular places, at particular times). The OED would turn into something thousands of times its current (gigantic) size, and this social information would have to be revised constantly.

All a good dictionary can do is point you in the right direction. It can't possibly tell the whole story. For uppity, the label "informal" or "colloquial" is probably the best you can do. Though the OED does have a cite from 1952 with uppity nigger in it:

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.



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