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Today's Word



Aug 12, 2020
This week’s theme
Characters related to slavery who have become words in the English language

This week’s words
Jim Crow
Simon Legree
Uncle Tom

Uncle Tom
Uncle Tom and Little Eva (detail), 1866

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with Anu Garg

Uncle Tom

(UHNG-kuhl tom)

noun: A person regarded as betraying their cultural allegiance by being subservient to another.

After Uncle Tom, an enslaved man in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96). Earliest documented use: 1852.

The term is considered disparaging and offensive, especially when applied to a Black person seen as being subservient to White people. In the book, Uncle Tom is a heroic figure. For example, he disobeys the orders to beat other enslaved people. In minstrel shows he was depicted as a passive figure and that image has taken root in the language.

“Fuming that he had been racially profiled, pulled from his car at gunpoint on his way to a team practice in Detroit, Russell proceeded to beat on white teammates until Reed intervened, asking, ‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘Be quiet, Uncle Tom,’ Russell snapped at his captain.”
Harvey Araton; The Old Knicks Made Basketball Games the ‘Hippest Place’ in New York; The New York Times; May 8, 2020.

See more usage examples of Uncle Tom in Vocabulary.com’s dictionary.

If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams -- the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn. -Robert Southey, poet (12 Aug 1774-1843)

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