Time and context change everything. A time traveler from 100 years ago would not understand, for instance, why showing up to school with a swastika on your shirt would get you sent home with a stern letter to your parents. And the changes go both ways -- the awful insult of the past is today's badge of pride.
So it's always weird to look at the pop culture symbols we just take for granted and realize how often the origins are somewhere between insulting and utterly horrifying.
#5. The Gay Rights "Pink Triangle" Was Invented by Nazis
It's one of the most well-known symbols of gay pride, second only to the rainbow flag. Gay rights advocates the world over use a pink triangle on their clothing to symbolize their allegiance to the cause, even though it makes them look a little bit like a weird cult.
Bill Wilson via San Francisco Sentinel
All glory to the mighty Isosceles!
But a pink triangle wasn't something you wanted to be wearing back in the 1940s, because it would have meant that you were in a fucking Nazi concentration camp.
Back when the Nazis were trying to figure out what kinds of people were deserving of life and settled on "white, blonde, straight, German" as the basic criteria, they realized that there were kind of a lot of people who didn't fit that mold for one reason or another. This presented a problem -- how could they easily distinguish between people who deserved to die because they were Jewish, those who deserved to die because they were gay, and people who deserved to die because they looked at you funny?
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The logistics of mass genocide are truly a nightmare.
The answer they came up with was to attach color-coded triangles to prisoners' shirts so that the worst people in history could easily identify the crime and therefore decide efficiently how bigoted they should be against the wearer. So Gypsies got brown triangles, common criminals got green, and homosexuals got pink. If you were a Jew in addition to any of these other categories, you got an extra yellow triangle, and God help you.
Himmler loved him some cheat sheets.
So why would homosexuals today want to use a symbol invented by Hitler? Simply, there's no better way to defuse a symbol of hatred than to appropriate it. That's why, after the war, German gay rights groups began using the symbol as their own, and gay activist organizations of the '70s followed suit.
#4. "Camptown Races" Mocks How Black People Talk
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On the subject of folk songs, you don't get much more innocuous than "Camptown Races," that delightful Southern tune that most of us associate with either Looney Tunes or ice cream trucks. For some of us, it's a reminder of simpler times back on the ranch when Grandpa would merrily mend the fence while humming "doo-dah, doo-dah." But the fact that this is an old Southern song should ring alarm bells, because it turns out ...
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Dammit, the South, can't you create ONE thing that isn't terrible in some way?
Oh man, this song is just racist as shit.
As we've mentioned before, "Camptown Races" was written by Stephen Foster, one of the 19th century's most prolific songwriters. Among his many other gigs, one of Foster's jobs was writing songs for minstrel shows, that old tradition where white people lathered their faces with boot polish and spoke like imbeciles because holy fuck, what were they thinking? You know where we're going with this.
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To the Camptown Racist -- we mean Races?
Although it's usually cleaned up a little for modern audiences, the original lyrics as penned by Foster himself look like this:
De Camptown ladies sing dis song -- Doo-dah! Doo-dah!
De Camptown race-track five miles long -- Oh! Doo-dah day!
I come down dah wid my hat caved in -- Doo-dah! Doo-dah!
I go back home wid a pocket full of tin -- Oh! Doo-dah day!
Gwine to run all night!
Gwine to run all day!
I'll bet my money on de bob-tail nag --
Somebody bet on de bay.
Foster wasn't a third grader when he wrote the song -- it was just the old-timey equivalent of some white guy mocking Ebonics and ranting about DeMarcus and Shaneequa's crazy mannerisms. These were the days when you could do that and go down in history as a genius rather than everyone deciding to never speak to you again.
Library of Congress
No, guys, it's OK, Stephen Foster had black friends.
To Foster's credit, he actually treated black subjects with much more respect than some of his contemporaries and eventually dropped the dialect shtick in his lyrics altogether. And while the lyrics and even title of the song have been bowdlerized six ways from Sunday in the interim, "Camptown Races" became firmly imprinted enough in the American psyche for Mel Brooks to skewer its racist overtones over 100 years later in Blazing Saddles.
#3. The Democrats' Donkey Was Used to Call Democrats Jackasses
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The "donkey for Democrat, elephant for Republican" symbols America uses for its political parties are so common that you don't even think about how nonsensical they are.
Democratic National Committee
And poorly drawn.
Why didn't the Republicans choose, say, a bald eagle or something? Why didn't the Democrats go with a bear or, if you want to go the other direction, an adorable puppy? There's nothing particularly American about either of the beasts they picked.
The Democratic Party of America adopted the donkey logo specifically because the media kept calling Andrew Jackson a jackass.
In fact, both the Democrats' donkey and the Republicans' elephant trace their origins to political cartoonists of the day, who used these animals to represent the respective parties in their scathing doodles. The reason they called the Republicans elephants is more or less lost to history (maybe a Republican went nuts and trampled a bunch of people?), but when lampooning Jackson, they drew the Democratic president as a jackass to signify his stubbornness and, to their mind, stupidity.
The use of the jackass to parody Jackson became so widespread in the media that it was eventually expanded to refer to the Democrats as a whole.
Wait, a donkey kicking a lion to death is an insult?
The Democrats, not to be shown up by some hack cartoonists, decided that, rather than fight their growing perception as jackasses in the media, they would appropriate the image instead. But instead of the stubborn, dumb animal the media intended to paint them as, the Democrats spun the donkey as a humble working-class animal of the people.
By turning the media's insult into a compliment, they took the sting out of political cartoonists who were unable to use animal analogies quite so effectively until the day they decided George W. Bush looked like a monkey.