5 Famous Symbols that Were Created to Be Horrible Insults
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.
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.
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?
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.
"Camptown Races" Mocks How Black People Talk
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
The Democrats' Donkey Was Used to Call Democrats Jackasses
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.
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.
Which is a bold move considering that Jackson had little compunction about shooting people who pissed him off.
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.
"Cavalier" Meant You Were a Murderous Thug
One of the best things about the English language is that it has a million words for "awesome." Among them is "cavalier," which describes a uniquely hipster kind of "too cool for this" attitude. That's why Chevy can name a car model the Cavalier, and why Cleveland can name its team the Cavaliers even though the term has no conceivable connection to Cleveland.
Ironically, something LeBron and "cavalier" have in common.
Not bad for a word that used to mean "brutal, murderous asshole."
This one goes back to the English civil war of the 17th century. We're not going to bury you in too many details from that war, but we'll just remind you that it had two sides, as civil wars tend to. On one end of the ring were the Royalists, the king's supporters. On the other were the Parliamentarians. Each side hated the other, and each side insulted the other. But with social networking still in its infancy, the opponents had no recourse but plain ol' name calling.
The Royalists called the Parlies "Roundheads," because the Parliamentarians kept their hair short, which made their heads look bare and simple beside the gaily flowing curls of someone in the royal court. The newly named Roundheads responded in typical schoolyard fashion by calling the Royalists "Cavaliers." This was an English way of translating the word "caballero," and it was an insult because a century earlier Spanish soldiers called Caballeros brutally murdered the shit out of the Dutch. For reference, note that paintings from the time period feature said Caballeros/Cavaliers stabbing Dutch women and children to death in the street:
"HOW DARE YOU TRY TO DRAW AN IMAGINARY LINE ACROSS LAND WE DON'T REALLY NEED!"
Here's one stabbing a guy right in the asshole, so that the spear comes out his dick:
Art used to be fucking hardcore.
Said Spanish soldiers went about on horseback, so "cavalier" also made sense as a word for a bunch of Royalists who kept dicking about on their horses. It was sort of like how today we throw around the word "Nazi" to describe people we don't like.
The Roundheads never liked being called Roundheads, and their name seems to have vanished with them. But the Cavaliers decided that they liked being called Cavaliers, because in their mind, the word conjured not so much the brutality of the Spanish, but their nobility and horsemanship. They began using the name themselves, and they kept using it as the monarchy pulled itself together after the war. A few centuries later, and now we just slap the word on a sports jersey and go with it.
"Yankee Doodle" Was Written by the British to Mock Americans
If you're an American, you probably know the lyrics to "Yankee Doodle" from when you used to sing it around the campfire at summer camp, but you've probably never put much thought into what they actually mean, considering that "Yankee doodle dandy" is an utterly nonsensical phrase. Most of us think of it as a patriotic Revolutionary War song that has something to do with an American soldier becoming momentarily confused about the distinction between feathers and pasta.
Nevertheless, it's such a classic folk tune that it's the state song of Connecticut, as well as an upbeat, jaunty celebration of that time we kicked the British king's ass.
The Founding Fathers could shred on piccolo.
Actually, the song was penned by the British, and its lyrics are mocking the shit out of American colonists.
In fact, despite the popular misconception that it's referring to the Revolutionary War, "Yankee Doodle" actually predates it by a couple of decades, back to the French and Indian War, during which the British were actually America's allies. That didn't stop the British from looking down upon the American colonists as a bunch of ... well, dandies.
When your homeland is so shitty that you keep having to steal other countries to live in, you tend to harbor some resentment.
The song is generally attributed to a British army physician named Richard Shuckburgh, who is thought to have written the ditty after arriving in the not-yet United States and meeting some crappy Connecticut militia in their makeshift uniforms and carrying tenth-rate equipment. As cheerful as the song sounds, it inspires more outrage when you know what its lyrics actually mean. For those who need a reminder:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni!
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step
And with the girls be handy!
"Is 'be handy' implying that we're date rapists? Oh, it's on, bitches."
Like most of the redcoats who begrudgingly sailed to the colonies to show them how it was done, Shuckburgh was a blue-blooded aristocrat who liked to wear those fluffy powdered wigs and puffy pirate shirts that were all the rage -- a fashion that was, at the time, called "macaroni." And although today we tend to use the word "dandy" to mean something like "swell," back then it was a slur for someone who thought they were above their station. Even "Yankee" was slang for "coward," which is probably a rude awakening for the New York baseball team.
So what the Brits were really singing about was those uppity American redneck cowards who put feathers in their hats and dared to think of themselves as being as good as the British. The whole thing seems so ridiculous now, in the same way that all of our '90s rap songs won't make sense in a future era when everyone roots for a pro sports franchise called the Indianapolis Mark-Ass Bitches.
Squaring off against the Green Bay Bustas.
Mike Floorwalker can be followed on Twitter, stalked on Facebook, and assaul- well, maybe just check out his work on Listverse. Ryan Menezes is a writer and layout editor here at Cracked. He broke down and made a Twitter page just for his Cracked fans.
Related Images: Speaking of famous symbols, did you know Chinese fortune cookies aren't Chinese? And that the Jesus fish is really a vagina? It's true! Horribly true. And it's also true that Guy Fawkes died trying to install the sort of theocracy that would terrify Anonymous today.