Word Watch: A Code Switch Game Show English is full of words and phrases with hidden racial backstories. Can you guess their histories? On part one of this two-part episode, we're unpacking the meaning behind "guru" and "boy."

Word Watch: A Code Switch Game Show

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What's good, CODE SWITCH listeners? We got a quick announcement for you. We are going to Alabama. WBHM and NPR have teamed up to bring you CODE SWITCH: Live From Birmingham. So on Tuesday, August 14 at 8 p.m. at UAB's Alys Stephens Center, we have some dope guests, including Mayor Randall Woodfin and WBHM's Gigi Douban. It's going to be a lot of fun. You can get your tickets now for the live taping of our podcast at nprpresents.org



Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, and I'm your host for this evening. And here on my left is my lovely assistant, Mr. Gene Demby.

DEMBY: I make the sequined dress look so good.

MERAJI: Very good, very nice on your hips. It's Word Watch night here on CODE SWITCH. That's right - Word Watch. Say that 10 times fast. We're watching out for words that have ethnic and racial backstories.

DEMBY: Uh-oh.

MERAJI: A lot of the terms we're talking about today get thrown around without much thought, so for the next two episodes on the podcast, we're going to be talking about where these words come from and what they really mean. And to do that, we'll be taking a trip across time and around the world. Gene, tell us where we're headed.

DEMBY: Well, Shereen, a little later on, we're going to India to discuss the roots of the word guru.

MERAJI: Fantastic.

DEMBY: We'll follow the path from England to the New World to hear where the phrase white trash comes from.

MERAJI: Magnificent.

DEMBY: And we're going to track down a melody with apocryphal roots in the Far East.

MERAJI: Brilliant.

DEMBY: And I'll take us to the American South to talk about...

MERAJI: Wait. Wait. Wait. Don't give it away.

DEMBY: OK. OK. I'm sorry.

MERAJI: First, we're going to play a game. And, listeners, this first challenge is for you.


MERAJI: So, today, before we watch all of these words, we're going to test your knowledge of some other racially coded words and phrases.


MERAJI: Here's how to play. We'll give you the definition, and you'll try to guess the word. And at the end of the podcast, we're going to share all of the right answers. Now, these are all words that we've explored on the Word Watch series on our blog, so if you're a diehard CODE SWITCH reader, you're at an advantage. But don't cheat. Don't pull up the blog.

DEMBY: Don't do that.

MERAJI: Please don't cheat. Gene, my assistant...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm...

MERAJI: (Laughter) Could you read our first clue?

DEMBY: Sure. Listeners, this phrase, with origins in the slave South, has come to mean a profound betrayal. It references a practice that started around 1808 after the importation of slaves from Africa to the U.S. officially ended.

MERAJI: A profound betrayal. All right, listeners, lock in your guesses - a phrase that might mean a profound betrayal. Write down your answers. We'll let you know if you're right at the end of this episode. You have to listen to the whole episode. Ha-ha.


DEMBY: But first, Shereen, I want to talk about boy.


DEMBY: Yes, boy. Remember Raising Kings? Remember that series we did?

MERAJI: Oh, I remember.

DEMBY: Yes...

MERAJI: It was four weeks in a row.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Listeners, you may remember Kavitha Cardoza and Cory Turner embedded with the first freshman class at this new public school in Washington, D.C., for young men of color.

DEMBY: Right - young men of color. I'm doing air quotes y'all can't see. And that's from the school's own literature - young men of color. In class, the teachers and the counselors call their students kings. In a way, that's supposed to, you know, affirm and inspire these young black male students because they face all these hurdles outside of school. But the - that was one of the things that made my antenna twitch because isn't kings - like, isn't that a little, you know, patriarchal, a little Hotep-ish (ph)? You know what I mean? And do we want to be calling them young men of color?

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: I mean, they're literally 14-year-olds, a couple months removed from middle school, right? So why can't they just be boys?

MERAJI: Great question. Why can't they be boys?

DEMBY: So when we're writing that script and editing it - right? - I kept thinking about this research from our play cousin Phillip Atiba Goff. He's from the Center of Policing Equity (ph).

MERAJI: Shout out to Phil Goff from Philly. He's been on the pod before.

DEMBY: And Phil's a psychologist who studies racism, or at least the way, like, the background radiation of racism in the U.S. affects people's perceptions of other people. And a few years ago, he and some colleagues published a study in the journal of the American Psychological Association. And not to get too deep into the weeds here, but they asked about 200 police officers, who were mostly white men, to look at photographs of black boys, of Latinx boys and white boys. And then, the officers would also be randomly told that the children in the photographs were accused of misdemeanors or felonies. So after all that, the researchers asked them to assess the ages of the boys in the photographs.

MERAJI: I feel like I know where this is going.

DEMBY: Yeah. So when it came to the black boys in the photographs, the officers overestimated their ages by nearly five years.

MERAJI: So the police officers perceived 13-year-old boys as 18-year-old men.

DEMBY: Right. Exactly. And the police officers saw the white kids in the photos as younger than their actual ages by almost a year.

MERAJI: Oh, wow.

DEMBY: Right. Exactly. And the researchers said that this has huge consequences, especially when it comes to criminal justice. Most societies tend to look at children as being innocent and in need of protection. And this study suggests that black boys aren't always read as kids and thus less likely to get the benefits of the protection of innocence. All of this was coming up for me when we were doing the Raising King series. Like, even in a school meant to uplift black boys, they didn't get the benefit of the doubt of boyhood, right? They just weren't being called boys, anyway. But when you think about it, there's, like, another big reason why the school may have avoided calling these children boys - because boy is a slur.

MERAJI: I was wondering if we were going to get to this because this is actually what I thought the whole Word Watch was going to be about.

DEMBY: Yeah. It's still a really touchy word for a lot of folks because after slavery, calling black men boy was one of the many indignities that took root in the South in particular. And by refusing to refer to black men as men, white folks could remind black folks of their place.

HIRAM SMITH: Black person walk down the street - you can't look a white person square in the eye, not in the South.

DEMBY: That's Hiram Smith. He's a linguist at Bucknell University.

SMITH: You can't talk to a white woman. You can't look her in the face. You can't address her. And if they're on the same sidewalk as you, you step off the sidewalk. We understand all of that. And boy does not exist in a social or ideological vacuum. It's just part of the framework. I mean, what if - why would you call a black man anything but boy?

DEMBY: He said that everywhere in the South, it was considered disrespectful to refer to an adult without sufficient deference. He said he would get smacked in the mouth if he talked back to his mom, right? But white adults and white children pointedly referred to a black person who was decades older than them as boy or as girl. And so while I was rabbit-holing on boy, on this question of boy as a slur, I found this employment discrimination case from the 1990s.

MERAJI: Which was not that long ago.

DEMBY: It wasn't that long ago at all. So it took place at this Tyson chicken plant in Alabama. There were several black employees there who applied for this manager job there. They kept getting passed over for promotion by a white supervisor who eventually just gave the job to some white dudes from outside. So the black workers sued the company. And they said in addition to being passed over for those jobs for - in favor of white people, that the white supervisor regularly called them boy as he was yelling directions at them...

MERAJI: Ugh. Come on.

DEMBY: I know. I know. And the supervisor didn't deny that he called them boy. He only denied that it was meant in any sort of derogatory way. And so this lawsuit became this epic legal battle that lasted for decades, and much of this lawsuit was basically hung up on whether boy was a slur or not. At one point, even the Supreme Court weighed in, unanimously, and advised the lower courts to knock it off and told them that context and language matters. The Supreme Court said, and I quote, "although it is true that the disputed word will not always be evidence of racial animus, it does not follow that the term standing alone is always benign. The speaker's meaning may depend on various factors, including context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom and historical usage."

MERAJI: So where did the lawsuit end up? What was the decision?

DEMBY: So the circuit court that said it wasn't a slur originally, they eventually changed their tune and conceded that point in 2010, like, nearly two decades after the suit was filed.

MERAJI: And this is just another reminder that context is everything because, all right; boy is a term of endearment. Like, that's my boy.

DEMBY: Right. But just to go back to Ron Brown High School for a second, when our NPR colleague Cory Turner, who is a white dude - when he first started reporting out this series at Ron Brown, he told me that he was really torn, right? He was torn between aging up these boys - right? - or using a word that the school intentionally avoids, boy, because it is so loaded, right? So early on, he ran his copy by another education reporter who happened to be a black dude, just to get a - you know, just to get a different set of eyes on it. And that black reporter was like, you know, I really don't know how I feel about you, Cory and Kavitha - neither of whom are black - referring to these kids as boys over and over. That made his antenna twitch.

MERAJI: So for very different reasons, this other black reporter felt uncomfortable about them calling the freshmen at Ron Brown boys. And you felt weird that they didn't call them boys, that they kept referring to them as kings.

DEMBY: Right. Like you always say, Shereen, it's really complicated. All right, y'all. We're going to take a break real quick. But before we do...


DEMBY: Shereen, do we have another clue for the listeners?

MERAJI: We do, and this is one of my favorites. Its exact origins are somewhat murky, but we know it's a centuries-old word with roots in West Africa. Today, this rhyming word is used to describe something deliberately confusing. But hundreds of years ago, it was a word for a masked dancer who would settle marital disputes in modern-day Ghana.

DEMBY: Write down your answers, listeners, and stay with us.

MERAJI: Also, where is the masked dancer that is in my house settling my marital disputes?


MERAJI: Where are you?


MERAJI: Welcome back to the show. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And this is CODE SWITCH, where we're bringing you linguistic histories from around the globe.

DEMBY: You know, CODE SWITCH is actually a linguistic term. Did you know that?

MERAJI: I did know that.

DEMBY: Oh. Anyway...


DEMBY: All right. We have one more word, but we have a clue first.

MERAJI: I'm ready.

DEMBY: This word is commonly used to refer to a criminal, a hoodlum or a troublemaker. And, often, the connotation is that this person is violent. It's a very racially coded word. It's frequently used to describe young black men. But the origins of this word actually trace back to Hindi and Urdu. It's a word meaning thief or swindler, and the word entered the English language in the 1800s during the British imperial rule of India.

MERAJI: Interesting.


DEMBY: That's actually a good place to start your reporting for the last word.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Right?

MERAJI: I think it is, yeah, because guru is my word.

DEMBY: All right. So why did you pick guru?

MERAJI: I actually feel, Gene, like it was decided for me.


MERAJI: ...In a spiritual sense. No, I'm just kidding.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: So we were working on the 'R-Word' In The Age Of Trump episode that we dropped back in January. Remember that one?


MERAJI: And in the original script, I referred to our standards and practices editor as NPR's ethics guru. And I can't remember if it was you or Sami - Sami Yenigun, our editor - who was like, is that cool to say?

DEMBY: Yeah, it's a little weird word.

MERAJI: And I remember being like, what, guru? And you all were like, yeah; is that racially insensitive? And I had honestly never thought about it because it's used all the time.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Beauty guru Daniel Martin is the man behind Meghan Markle's gorgeous face.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Starting with a 10-year-old fitness guru with washboard abs. His name...


ALEX TREBEK: Michelle Cabral from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, you have become the official family "Star Wars" guru.


ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: The guru of gore - Wes Craven directed dozens of now-classic horror movies, including...

MERAJI: That's a lot of gurus.

DEMBY: A lot of gurus.

MERAJI: That was from "Good Morning America," ABC News, "Jeopardy!" and NPR. They all used the guru. So why can't I?

DEMBY: (Laughter) Well, it's been a minute, so I can't remember. Did you actually end up calling - Mark Memmott, our standards editor - did you actually end up calling NPR's ethics guru?

MERAJI: I didn't. We took it out of the script, and that's when I called dibs on guru for this word watch episode.

DEMBY: OK, OK. So, what did you learn about the...

MERAJI: I learned so much, Gene. Let's listen to some of my conversation with the first expert I talked to.

Vamsee Juluri, welcome to CODE SWITCH.


MERAJI: You're a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco. You're also a writer. You write both novels and nonfiction.

JULURI: I have a forthcoming memoir called "The Guru Within," and it's about the idea of the guru.

MERAJI: And that's exactly why we brought you on. We brought you here to talk about the word guru, which is - I feel like it's pretty ubiquitous in the American-English lexicon. But it's a Sanskrit word. What are the origins of the word guru?

JULURI: First, I want to give a little bit of the everyday context in which I came to understand the word guru and I think most people in India and now around the world understand the word guru.


JULURI: And it is really in the context of a tremendous sense of reverence that we feel in practice, from the time we are children, towards the teacher. I think one of the things on which I had a bit of culture shock when I first came to the U.S. was the fact that here students used to address teachers by their first name. And in India, somehow, you know, the idea - there's a famous saying, you know, (speaking foreign language). That is, worship the mother, father and the teacher as if they were, you know, divinity.

And originally, of course, in the Sanskrit language it largely referred to what we might call a spiritual sort of a teacher. And there are two main etymological notions going around. One is the idea of guru as a dispeller of darkness or ignorance. But I think the more fascinating one - which I think of more and more - is the idea of guru as being closely connected to gravity, to weight, you know, to the presence that the guru or teacher has inside herself or himself. And it's that gravity which sort of, you know, leads us into the light.

MERAJI: Well, speaking of informality, we also like to use the word guru in a way that I'm not so sure it carries that same weight, that same reverence, that same gravity that you were talking about. For example, I did a search for the word guru on NPR's website - npr.org. And would you mind if I read you a couple of the headlines that came up in that search that I did?

JULURI: Please do.

MERAJI: "Missing Richard Simmons Follows Fitness Gurus Supposed Disappearance," "The Vatican Sends Its Social Media Guru To SXSW Festival," "Tech Gurus Teach Food Entrepreneurs The Recipe For Success." By the way, this is a short list. (Laughter) I mean, this is, like - it was, like, in every - I mean, I'm exaggerating. It's not in every headline, but we love using the word guru here at NPR. And I don't know. What do you think of this type of use of the word?

JULURI: It's interesting. Because on the one hand it's so ubiquitous, like you said, that you don't think twice about the possible dilution or the cultural appropriation issue directly. But when you think of, you know, this sort of usage of the word guru without a counterbalancing representation of the culturally-rooted sensibilities around, that word - you know, those sensibilities which come naturally to us in India, I mean, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains - we start getting this very one-sided, skewed, one might even call it an orientalist discourse in the U.S. where guru become so fluid it's like anybody who's good at anything. So would you call somebody a criminal guru or, you know, (unintelligible) guru or something like that? You know, it loses its ethical and philosophical core. That's a concern.

DEMBY: How did that word - how did guru get so far away from what Vamsee calls its ethical and philosophical core?

MERAJI: Gene, that was the hardest part to figure out. I couldn't find anything written on how guru morphed from meaning spiritual teacher to anyone good at anything. And if you've written a book on this, please contact me (laughter) because I could not find you. Anyway, I had to work with the NPR librarians - shoutout to Brin and Barclay (ph).

And we focused on U.S. newspaper archives. And we searched for the word guru. And prior to 1965, you don't find it very often in newspapers. But in the late '60s, it is everywhere. So I checked in with another expert.

Ben Zimmer, is it true that you're a linguist, lexicographer and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal?

BEN ZIMMER: That is all true.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Excellent. Lexicographer - that was my first time seeing that word.

ZIMMER: (Laughter) Well, you pronounced it perfectly.

MERAJI: I like it.

ZIMMER: I think that the transition of guru from just referring to a spiritual teacher in these Eastern traditions to something more general, simply a thought leader in some sort of discipline, it definitely started happening in the mid-to-late '60s with the greater prominence of certain gurus, including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was famously the guru for the Beatles.


BEATLES: (Singing) Jai guru deva, om. Nothing's gonna change my world. Nothing's gonna change my world.

MERAJI: Gene, that's "Across The Universe" by the Beatles.

DEMBY: Of course, yes.

MERAJI: I'm a Beatles stan. Do you - did you know that about me?

DEMBY: I did not know that.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: This is something - I learn something new about you every week. Really, so you're a Beatles stan?

MERAJI: I know every word to that song.


MERAJI: Anyway, in the late '60s, there were lots of mentions of guru in the U.S. media - hippies and gurus and LSD often in the same sentence. Guru fashion was a thing in the late '60s, like wearing guru beads.

DEMBY: I'm just imagining all these, like, hippie-ish people.

MERAJI: And the Beatles get a lot of the credit for that. But Zimmer told me a man named Tom Wolfe might actually be responsible for how we use the term guru in the U.S. media in this more informal way.

DEMBY: Oh, Tom Wolfe.

MERAJI: Do you know Tom Wolfe is?

DEMBY: Yeah, didn't he - like, wasn't he, like, the New Journalism guy?

MERAJI: Yes. And he died this past year.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: He was 88 years old. He was very well-respected. And he popularized a bunch of words and phrases that we use all the time in the media - the right stuff, for example, masters of the universe, radical chic, good old boy - he popularized that one. And in 1965, he wrote a piece in The New York Herald Tribune - which is where he worked - about Marshall McLuhan, the man now credited for pioneering media studies.

ZIMMER: Calling him a pop guru - Tom Wolfe, I think, might have helped to get the ball rolling on this more expansive idea of what a guru could be.

DEMBY: So whether it was Tom Wolfe or the Beatles, should we be handing out blame for guru's overuse in the media? Like, is it a problem? Or is it good that it's sort of propagated itself out into the world?

MERAJI: You know what? At this point, I was still not sure, so I called up one of our favorite CODE SWITCH guests. And here's a clue - since we're all about clues in this episode - we had them on our Chicago live show to talk about his documentary which examines the lack of South Asian representation in U.S. media and the beef he has with a certain character on "The Simpsons."

DEMBY: Oh, I know this one.

MERAJI: Hari Kondabolu, welcome back to CODE SWITCH.

HARI KONDABOLU: Hey, Shereen. How are you?

MERAJI: I'm good. Do you know why you're here today?

KONDABOLU: The word guru?

MERAJI: Yeah, you're here to talk about the word guru.

KONDABOLU: It doesn't bother me. I'm sure everyone's like, oh, the crybaby about the cartoon?

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yeah.

KONDABOLU: He's not upset about this? Don't call me guru of comedy, and we're good.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

KONDABOLU: What I hate more than the word guru being used is the movie "The Guru" that came out a few years ago with Mike Myers that was just so...

MERAJI: Oh, "The Love Guru."

KONDABOLU: "The Love Guru" - that's the one.


KONDABOLU: And it's, like, so racist. And it's, like, that is an issue to me.


MIKE MYERS: (As Guru Pitka) In my book "I Know You Are, But What Am I?," I explain that when love goes wrong...

JESSICA ALBA AND MIKE MYERS: (As Jane Bullard and Guru Pitka) Nothing goes right.

MYERS: (As Guru Pitka) Yes.

JESSICA ALBA: (As Jane Bullard) I've read it. It's impressive.

MYERS: (As Guru Pitka) It's nothing short of a masterpiece.

KONDABOLU: They let you make that crap? That's how big "Austin Powers" was, where Mike Myers can make that crap.

MERAJI: Oh, Hari.

And actually, Vamsee Juluri, the media studies professor we heard from earlier...

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...He actually talks about how hard it is to separate these negative depictions of gurus in the U.S. media from the word itself. So whether it's on "The Simpsons" or in a bad Mike Myers comedy or a popular documentary about a guru who takes advantage of his or her disciples...

DEMBY: Sheela.

MERAJI: ...The stereotype of the charismatic guru who misleads their followers - it's a really powerful stereotype and a negative one.

DEMBY: So is Vamsee cool with people like you using the word guru?

MERAJI: Well, he told me that the positive around the word still outweighs the negative. For the most part, you know, in the media we're still using it to mean someone who has mastery over something and is willing to share that knowledge - i.e. NPR's ethics guru.

JULURI: But I think anybody who uses that word - or any word, for that matter - should think a little bit more about the weight of words, you know, to put it very, very precisely. And the second thing is that people should start becoming more and more alert to the skewed, one-sided depictions of the word guru, you know, like "The Love Guru." So I think those are the two things that we could be more educated about.


GURU: (Rapping) It's OK, though, 'cause from gray skies comes blue, through darkness comes light, and I be known as the Guru. And this I certify, we all should be alerted by the traps within the system our youth is getting murdered by. The DA says they got me on a felony.

MERAJI: And that's Guru, the MC from Gang Starr, taking it back to its original meaning, the meaning of guru. He says from gray skies comes blue, through darkness comes light, and I be known as the Guru.

DEMBY: One of the most important groups in the history of hip-hop.

DEMBY: That's right - DJ Premier and Guru. And this is "JFK 2 LAX" off the "Moment Of Truth" album. And really, getting back to what Vamsee Juluri said about gravity and weight, I feel like this track is really still relevant, what he's rapping about, 20 years later. I encourage you all to go back and listen. And rest in peace, Guru.

DEMBY: Rest in peace, Guru.


GURU: (Rapping) JFK to LAX.


MERAJI: That's our show. And if you've stuck with us for this long, it's finally time - we're going to reveal our mystery words from earlier in the episode.

DEMBY: The first phrase, meaning a profound betrayal, is sold down the river. Sold down the river comes from the practice of taking black folks to Louisville to be sold down the Ohio River and transported to the cotton plantations in states further south.

MERAJI: Yikes.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: OK. Our second word comes from West Africa. It means something intentionally confusing. And it rhymes. The word is mumbo-jumbo - as in political mumbo-jumbo.

DEMBY: Our last word, you remember, came to English from Hindi in the early 1800s. It meant thief or swindler, and it's now frequently used to refer to young brown or black people. And that word is thug. Who knew?

MERAJI: So next week on the podcast, we have Part 2 of our Word Watch Game Show. We're going to be quizzing you on some more words and dropping knowledge about these words and phrases connected to race - white trash, and this musical phrase.


MERAJI: And just before we sign off, here's one last clue for you to chew on this week. This phrase is used to describe someone shady who exploits an unsuspecting public. It came into use between 1849 and 1882, after around 180,000 Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work on the transcontinental railroad. And you can read all about the history of words and phrases that have an interesting racial or ethnic backstory on our blog - npr.org/codeswitch.

DEMBY: If you have any other word you won't hear about it - hit us up, tweet at us, email us, respond to the callout in our hilarious newsletter.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: If you aren't signed up, you should do that immediately at npr.org/newsletters...

MERAJI: Slash codeswitch.

DEMBY: .../codeswitch.


MERAJI: Leah Donnella and Maria Paz Gutierrez produced this episode with help from our intern, Angelo Bautista. It was edited by Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: And a big shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Steve Drummond, Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido and Kat Chow. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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