The Grammarphobia Blog

Is ‘ungrateful’ the new ‘uppity’?

Q: The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb says “ungrateful” is the new “uppity,” citing its use to condemn wealthy black athletes who take a knee to protest police brutality. Any comment?

A: In his article, Cobb mentions a tweet by Joe Walsh, a conservative talk-show host and former Republican congressman from Illinois:

“Stevie Wonder began a performance in Central Park last night by taking a knee, prompting Congressman Joe Walsh to tweet that Wonder was ‘another ungrateful black multi-millionaire.’ Ungrateful is the new uppity.”

The word “ungrateful” (not feeling or showing gratitude) has been used a lot lately to criticize protesting African-American athletes, along with quite a few other disparaging terms.

For example, a widely circulated post by Breitbart News on Facebook calls the protesters “a bunch of rich, entitled, arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates.”

However, the use of “ungrateful” to criticize blacks isn’t especially new. It’s been used that way at least as far back as the mid-1800s.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from British Guiana: Demerara After Fifteen Years of Freedom, an 1853 book by John Brummell, a land owner in the Demerara region of the British colony:

“Even now, when the British nation, disappointed at the results of Emancipation in the West Indies, plainly demand that the lazy and ungrateful negro, should not be allowed to relapse into barbarism.”

And an article in the May 1864 issue of the Christian Examiner, an American journal, uses the term in predicting the reaction of plantation owners to the freeing of slaves at the end of the Civil War.

The writer says the planters will complain “that emancipation has been the ruin of the South; that the lazy and ungrateful negro chooses to earn a competency on his own soil.”

But how is “ungrateful” being used in that 1864 example? Did the writer really believe that plantation owners would think their former slaves should feel gratitude for being enslaved?

We suspect that the term is being used here in the sense of “uppity” (arrogant or conceited), a word that showed up later in the 19th century.

The first citation for “uppity” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris’s 1881 collection of African-American folk tales. (An earlier term, “uppish,” also means conceited or stuck up.)

Uncle Remus, the fictional black narrator of the stories, uses “uppity” for a stuck-up sparrow that tattles on Brer Fox: “Hit wuz wunner deze yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck.”

Uncle Remus also uses “uppity” to describe Brer Rabbit, Brer Rooster, and a flighty black maid, Tildy.

In a few years, the word “uppity” was being used in mainstream newspapers without racial overtones, according to our searches of NewsBank databases.

The March 20, 1886, issue of the Macon (GA) Telegraph, for example, describes how a woman was tricked into pulling the bell-line to stop a train. When the conductor questions her, the woman says “you needn’t git so uppity.”

And the Jan. 23, 1888, Duluth (MN) Daily News has an account about a merchant in a town who “becomes a little uppity and bigity, and so he moves to the city.”

Of course the term has long been used to disparage African-Americans. The OED cites this example from Frederick Lewis Allen’s 1952 social history The Big Change:

“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.”

And we’ll add a comment by Rush Limbaugh, who said that Michelle Obama was booed at a NASCAR event because the crowd didn’t like her travel spending and her campaign for healthy living.

“NASCAR people understand that’s a little bit of a waste,” Limbaugh said on a Nov. 21, 2011, broadcast of his radio show. “They understand it’s a little bit of uppity-ism.”

Getting back to your question, is “ungrateful” being used now in the sense of “uppity”?

Well, Joe Walsh, the talk-show host, does seem to be using it that way. But some other critics of protesting black athletes may be using it in the sense of unpatriotic.

For example, Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion, called the NFL protests “misguided and ungrateful.”

“There are many ways to protest, but the national anthem should be our moment to stand together as one UNITED States of America,” she said in a statement.

As for the etymology here, the words “grateful” and “ungrateful” ultimately come from grātus, classical Latin for agreeable, pleasing, popular, and thankful.

In fact, the word “grateful” meant both agreeable and thankful when it showed up in English in the mid-1500s. Similarly, “ungrateful” once meant disagreeable as well as not feeling or showing gratitude.

The earliest example for “ungrateful” in the OED uses the term in the sense of not feeling or showing gratitude:

“The Macedons … confessyng them selues bothe wicked and vngrateful, for depriuynge him of anye name wherof he was worthye.” (From John Brende’s 1553 translation of a work by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus.)

The first citation for “ungrateful” used to mean disagreeable is from “Orchestra,” a 1596 poem by John Davies about dancing:

“How shee illudes with all the Art she can, / Th’vngratefull loue which other Lords began.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context).

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