Traveling Smart: 8 Words Global Students Should Avoid

8 Words Global Students Should Avoid

Globe Keychain by Horia Varlan, on Flickr

Words are arbitrary. A number of letters stringed together doesn’t mean anything until meaning is given. With world views constantly changing, meanings are also in a constant morphing state. A word seen as perfectly acceptable one minute could be seen as extremely offensive the next. Even if a word isn’t considered offensive, its connotation could change, causing you to say one thing when you meant another.

We at GoAbroad want you to choose your words wisely, especially if you’re about to study abroad or become a global nomad. Here are eight words to broaden your international vocabulary and help you become a more aware world citizen. Also be sure to explore all the language abroad opportunities on!

1. Overseas

No one is going to give you an angry glance for using the word “overseas.” Heck, we’ve used it in a few of our posts. But it’s worth noting that other terms such as “abroad” are preferred. Why? Starting around the time of WWI, overseas was a word used to describe where deployed soldiers went. The term was actually popularized during WWI as a British euphemism for “colonial.” Aside from “overseas” being associated with war, it’s not always accurate.  You don’t cross oceans each time you travel to a new country.

2. Foreign

“Foreign” is an acceptable word when used to describe policies, but referring to a person as “foreign” or a “foreigner” has become offensive. Think about it: Would you like to be called foreign? Anyone called by that term is automatically cast aside as an outsider or alien; someone that doesn’t belong. You wouldn’t want to be referred to as something that has such a negative connotation when all you’re trying to do is fit in with local culture.

3. America

Referring to “America” as a country might leave some people confused. North America, Central America and South America are all “Americas,” but which one is THE America? Obviously there is no single “America.” This has become the accepted way for citizens of the United States of America to refer to their country, but if used while abroad it will be seen as incredibly ethnocentric. United States is greatly preferred.

4. Backwards

Saying that a country is “backwards” is never acceptable, even if that country’s lifestyle is the complete opposite of yours. It’s okay to comment on the differences between countries, but calling a nation or a culture “backwards” implies that its customs are behind or beneath the customs of the country you compare it to. Innovation and progress are thought of as moving forward, so saying something is “backwards” generally isn’t seen as positive.

Some words take on different meanings in different countries. Here are a few examples of terms that may not mean much to you but are incredibly offensive to others.

5. Frog

If you are in France, be careful about using the word “frog” during conversations. Just as people from the United States are referred to negatively as “Yanks,” people from France are often called “Frogs.” One reason this offensive moniker was given to the French is because frog legs are a delicacy in their country.

6. Jock

“Jock” is a term that is sometimes considered offensive to Scots, so think twice before using it. Similar to “Frog” in France, “Jock” is a term people use when referring to Scots in a derogatory manner. Jock is the Scottish name for John, and it became a slang term used for Scottish sailors. The term became offensive during the war of succession with England, when all Scots were referred to as Jocks. Today the word is offensive to some but okay to use with others, so it might be easiest to avoid the term all together.

7. Coolie

Be careful about using the word “cool” or “coolie” when in China, India or other parts of Asia. The term “Coolie” used to be used when referring to unskilled workers, or laborers, in these regions. “Coolie” is considered an ethnic slur, so to be safe, try not to say any version of “cool” if you’re studying abroad in an Asian country.

8. Gypsy

“Gypsy” is a word that may be offensive to people in a variety of countries, but the term should be used with special care in the country it originated from: Romania. When Roma began migrating from northern India to Europe, many Europeans thought they were outcasts from Egypt. They were called a variety of names, with the most popular being “gypsy”. Not all people from Romania are offended by this term, but you should be careful when using it all over the globe. In the same sense, saying that you were “gypped” is a phrase that’s best  to avoid.

What other offensive words do you think should be avoided? Are there any words on this list that you think don’t belong? Tell us what you think below!

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16 Responses to “Traveling Smart: 8 Words Global Students Should Avoid”

  1. María Paola Salas
    Thursday, 24 May 2012 at 2:05 #

    Very nice article! It’s great to know the reason why those words or phrases should not be used.

    • Lauren Seidl
      Friday, 25 May 2012 at 10:36 #

      Thanks Maria! I know, it’s interesting to learn how people interpret different words and phrases. I’m glad you found it helpful 🙂

  2. Connor Davies
    Friday, 25 May 2012 at 4:25 #

    Having lived in Argentina for five years, I can tell you that a lot of people find the word ‘America’ to describe the United States as, if not offensive, very annoying. I never really understood this, however, because America is just short for the United States of America. But it certainly ruffles a few feathers here, and probably in a number of other countries in the region as well.

    • Lauren Seidl
      Friday, 25 May 2012 at 10:49 #

      I hear ya. Growing up in the United States, we’re raised to identify our country as “America” for short and have a hard time seeing why this could be annoying. But from another perspective it makes us seem really egotistic, like we’re the only country in the Americas.

      Personally, I like saying U.S. because it’s the shortest abbreviation. Referring to the U.S. as “the States” could also be fun.

  3. Language Geek
    Tuesday, 5 June 2012 at 12:10 #

    “it’s connotation could change, ” should be “its connotation” without an apostrophe. “It’s” was correctly used later in the article as an abbreviation for “it is.” Grammar nickpicking or editing aside, this was an interesting article that brings up points worth considering. I’ve definitely heard people in Argentina express frustration about people who call the U.S. “America.”

    • Lauren Seidl
      Tuesday, 5 June 2012 at 10:15 #

      Oops! Thanks for the edit. Sometimes those apostrophes sneak into places they don’t belong 🙂 I’m glad you found this an interesting read!

  4. Blake Sawyer
    Tuesday, 5 June 2012 at 1:03 #

    As a North American having lived or traveled in about 50 countries over the years I have a few comments:

    1. Overseas: No one, anywhere in any language uses “abroad” in their native language I am aware of except maybe in the UK. It is true that overseas is generally thought to be militarily related as a source. I use it for any travel abroad and have been doing so for 50 years. Maybe I am stuck in the past.

    2. If you are from somewhere other than the country you are in you are a foreigner everywhere in the world. If you are in The Netherlands you might want a t-shirt that says “I am Not a Tourist”. That differentiates you from the other foreigners.

    3. Amerigo Vespucci most likely spent his first expedition in South America. Everyone, everwhere who even knows there is a North, Central and South America identifies someone labeled “American” is from the US. I might not use the term in the Americas; just like I would not use being a Columbian. That would cause confusion.

    4. Backwoods is okay. “Backwards” is pretty derogatory especially if the person you are talking to is facing away.

    5. I would not use “Frog” to describe a Frenchman. To be called a “Yank” is now a matter of pride. Though the term was meant to be derogatory the North American Colonist Revolutionaries from that part of North Americans that was not yet the United States of America during the third quarter of the 18th Century located between Canada and Mexico also took pride in being called “Yanks”. The English still use it. So do the Scots. I have never heard it hurled in a derogatory fashion from anywhere, and it separated residents of the US from those of others of North, Central and South America. “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy…”

    6. Who uses “Jock” except UK English speakers? I hear the Scots call each other “Jock”. It is not even in the vocabulary of US American English speakers. I have a BA in English and taught it. I have never heard it used by anyone from the US. My ancestors were from the south Scottish border and helped the English suppress their brethren. I wonder what they were called?

    7. During WWII my father was stationed in India. He had lots of “coolies” working for him. In that context the term applies. In all others probably not. However, like “Jock”. US residents probably do not even know what a “Coolie” is.

    8. Those who live on the European continent never call Romas “Gypsies”. They call them “Roma”. Native US citizens do not know what Romas are. You have to tell them they are “Gypsies”. Perhaps calling yourself a wandering “Gypsy” might identify you as a Roma until someone takes a good look at you. Romas tend to be pretty identifiable.

    I really enjoyed the article. It made me think about what I have heard people called in a derogatory fashion or perceived by the recipients to be derogatory.

    In the late 1960’s I was a lifeguard in the US. I had a co-worker who was “black”. I used to use a term to express emphasis: “Boy, is it hot!”.

    I used such a term in conversation with that very large, very muscled wrestler. As soon as it was out of my mouth I realized it might be construed as derogatory. I apologized immediately. He just laughed and laughed. He knew my intent was not to use the abusively.

    So as long you are an American foreigner overseas eating your favorite les grenouilles in a London restaurant waiting for the 2012 Summer Olympics with your Jock cousin served by a Coolie you probably should not hang your Gypsy day pack on a chair lest it fall backwards. You will most likely get a laugh and not a growl.

  5. Lauren Seidl
    Tuesday, 5 June 2012 at 10:39 #

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Blake! It’s great to hear the opinion of someone who’s well-traveled. I agree with you that terms such as “Frog” or “Jock” are not in the American English vocabulary as derogatory terms, but Americans would use these terms to describe an amphibian or an athlete. It’s always interesting to learn what words might be found offensive, but just like with your story, hopefully people will realize if they’re used without the intention of belittling. I’m glad this article got you thinking!

  6. Roj
    Wednesday, 6 June 2012 at 3:39 #

    “Coolie” should also be used carefully in Belize where many East Indians live, since they were Indentured laborers.

  7. Sam
    Friday, 8 June 2012 at 9:39 #

    As a Spanish language learner, I’ve come to wish that English had a better equivalent of “estadounidense,” which means “of the United States”. It would keep us from having to say “American”.

  8. Abs
    Saturday, 23 June 2012 at 8:27 #

    Referring back to using the word ‘Jock’ in Scotland… I have lived in Scotland for nearly four years now but I’m English. I’ve never heard anyone say the word Jock. However, I would say that it is important not to confuse Scottish people with English, or Scottish heritage for English etc. That can be pretty offensive. Also, perhaps this is a Glaswegian thing… But be really sensitive about football (soccer), mainly with Rangers and Celtic.

  9. Jack Abers
    Monday, 2 July 2012 at 6:32 #

    Great article. Not sure about all the terms but ‘overseas’ is such an outdated ethnocentric term. Whenever I hear someone use it, it reminds me of my grandfather talking about the big war!

  10. Tonya
    Monday, 7 April 2014 at 11:51 #

    Also be careful about phrases like “Balls in your court” or “that came out of left field” for us American’s these are natural but in countries where the sports don’t exist it won’t make any sense.

  11. Amanda
    Friday, 28 November 2014 at 6:07 #

    Whether in a taxi or from local Thais I worked with, it seems few people (in Thailand) got “United States” first off when I responded to ‘where I’m from’… Every time I said “America”, however, they always asked “New York” or “California”!?

    Of course that’s just one location compared to many, but it seems tourist landing hubs (like Bangkok) have been heavily influenced by ‘sojourners from abroad’.

  12. evann
    Wednesday, 17 December 2014 at 12:55 #

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  13. Cara
    Monday, 17 October 2016 at 10:05 #

    This is a great article, and very helpful for many i’m sure. There’s so many words with different meanings; for instance in Korea, the word ‘salsa’ is very different. Out for a Mexican in Korea? It’s probably best not to ask for salsa: it means ‘diarrhoea’ in Korean.

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