Cotton Picking

Did you ever hear that phrase? I heard it fairly frequently as a kid and not so much lately. I happened to read it today and got to thinking about how bigoted that phrase is. The phrase is always pejorative: Keep your cotton picking hands to yourself. Get your cotton picking hands off that.

Off the top, it clearly refers to those who picked cotton by hand, and specifically that would be African Americans. So it’s an incredibly racist statement. Keep your black hands off whatever or to yourself. Don’t use our bathrooms either. Or our drinking fountains. It’s truly foul and I’m really glad it’s fallen out of common usage. But isn’t it amazing how just looking at it without context there’s nothing particularly offensive about it. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be black and hear a phrase like that. I mean, I hear any kind of “like a girl” phrase and I get a little homicidal. Because there are no does things like a girl phrase that are complimentary to girls.

I’m trying to think of other phrases like Cotton Picking that I’ve heard that are racist and I didn’t realize. Anybody want to enlighten me?


  • Lexica

    I’ve read that “long time no see” comes from the same setting as “no tickee, no laundry” and originated as an anti-Chinese slur.


    My mother in law was born and raised in South Carolina during the depression. From the age of 5 years-6 months she worked with her family as sharecroppers .ore than once I would hear the tales of sunup to sundown ,6 days a week. Picking cotton, veggies,corn,potatoes and a few other things that I have never heard of. To them , cotton picking was a job and a skill needed to be able to survive she never saw it as a derogatory term in her 95 years of life and counting …

    • Di Francis

      I was thinking when I wrote this that the phrase could be quite derogatory of migrant and farm workers. Sharecroppers fit into that. Cotton picking hands suggest rough hands, dirty hands, tanned and burnt hands, and so on. Someone of “higher” quality would no doubt be pale white without any sun exposure to suggest manual labor, always clean, soft hands. In other words, too wealthy to have to work, or too wealthy to have to do manual labor. Men and women both. I bet it definitely started out as derogatory and the meaning has slowly faded from current consciousness.

      Your MIL sounds pretty awesome. Ask her sometime if she heard the phrase and what she thinks of it. I’m really curious.

  • Mark Chapman

    The ‘rule of thumb’ is another phrase with horrifying origins. A husband was not allowed to beat his wife with a stick larger in diameter than his thumb. For those of us with European ancestors, I can highly recommend the book Southern Honor by Bertram Wyatt-Brown for a learned discourse on the origins of just about anything objectionable to modern sensibilities.

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