“Ginger”

Noun or adjective corresponding, respectively, to the U.S. redhead  and redheaded or red-haired. Also a nickname for a ginger person (equivalent to U.S. Red) as in drummer Ginger Baker or singer Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell (impressively, the second consecutive Spice Girls reference in NOOBs).

The term first appeared on my radar when, in London in 2004, I read this sentence in the Daily Telegraph: “The ginger asthmatic was always going to struggle in Coimbra’s oppressive heat.” I eventually figured out that this was a reference to footballer Paul Scholes–and “the ginger asthmatic” still ranks as my favorite all-time example of the class of misguided synonym that H.W. Fowler referred to as “elegant variation.”

Undoubtedly, the term gained traction in the U.S. with the popularity of the Harry Potter books. According to the Harry Potter Wiki, “Scabior, Fenrir Greyback, and a drunk man on Tottenham Court Road” all referred to Harry Potter’s famously ginger-haired mate Ron Weasely by this term.

Members of a Newcastle family that was forced to move in 2007 because of anti-ginger harassment

The term has a long and sometimes unsettling history in Britain. According to Wikipedia (don’t judge me! there are footnotes!)

A UK woman recently won an award from a tribunal after being sexually harassed and receiving abuse because of her red hair;[55] a family in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, was forced to move twice after being targeted for abuse and hate crime on account of their red hair;[56] and in 2003, a 20 year old was stabbed in the back for “being ginger”.[57] In May 2009, a British schoolboy committed suicide after being bullied for having red hair.[58] The British singer Mick Hucknall, who believes that he has repeatedly faced prejudice or been described as ugly on account of his hair color, argues that Gingerism should be described as a form of racism.

Ginger prejudice arrived in the U.S. in 2005 with an episode of the animated comedy series “South Park” entitled “Ginger Kids.”  In the episode, a satire on racial and other sorts of prejudice, “Cartman rallies all other ginger kids to rise up and assume their role as the master race” (in the words of the series website). As is often the case with satire, there were unintended consequences. A 14-year-old Vancouver boy started a Facebook group devoted to “National Kick a Ginger Day”; it attracted almost 5,000 members, and the founder was eventually investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for possible hate crimes

Marc Torsilieri, who looked like a ginger-bearded lumberjack and played the part in splendid fashion by annually felling the Christmas tree for Rockefeller Center, died on March 12 in Somerville, N.J. (Douglas Martin, New York Times, March 17, 2007)/Scarlett Johansson, who is now a ginger, and Donald Trump. Really, I would love to know what’s being said here. “Scarlett, I’d like to bring you back to the Trump Tower so I could tell you you’re fired while we make love on a bearskin rug.” “OH DONALD YOU’RE TOO MUCH! HAHAHAH, don’t you know I’m with Sean Penn now?!” (photo caption, BostonHerald.com, May 1, 2011)

About these ads

48 responses to ““Ginger”

  1. This was the 2010 BrE-to-AmE Word of the Year on my blog:

    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2010/12/words-of-year-2010.html

    But the more insulting BrE pronunciation (rhymes with ‘singer’) seems not to have made it to the US–not even to South Park.

  2. Thanks, Lynne. I also came across a reference to the shortened form “ginge.” Surely that doesn’t rhyme with “sing”?

  3. My grandmother, a UK-born ginger who emigrated when she was 19, can testify to the maltreatment of gingers. She was teased mercilessly through her entire childhood – by adults and children – for her red hair. My grandfather, a Yank stationed in England, loved her hair — she thought he was crazy. She couldn’t believe it when she moved to the US and people made such a fuss over her beautiful hair!!! Her ginger brother and sister also eventually emigrated to the US to avoid persecution.

  4. The first time I used the term in front of my husband he shot me a look. Born in England, his family moved here when he was a small boy, but his grandfather used a lot of Cockney.
    My husband said “ginger” is Cockney for queer. As in “Ginger beer = Queer.”

  5. ‘Ginge’ rhymes with ‘singe’ but I think people sometimes vary the vowel to make it sound worse.
    The persecution of ‘gingers’ in England is not unrelated to the fact that red hair is perceived as a Irish or Scottish trait.

  6. (And ‘ginge’ rhymes with ‘dinge’ and ‘whinge’ [BrE for 'whine, complain']. So it has some fairly negative sound-symbolic value.

  7. It seems to be like the U.S. dumb blond jokes but with a really nasty edge.

  8. when used in a derogatory way (which I don’t approve of having a soft spot for red headed men) the initial G is often hardend and the ing is sounded as the last part of ending.

  9. im a read head or ‘ginger’ as the brits call it, im irish bred but moved to australia when i was 3. i can tell you i would love to be called ginger over the derogitary ‘ranga’ (as in orangatun) that Australian’s love to use. i was teased mercilessly at school as is every red headed child and adault in Australia, treatment here is easily equal to that which occurs the UK. there is a tv show here which probably coined the term ranga several years ago and it is now acceptable to call any read head this at any time. infact our prime minister has even being called this many times by the oposition in parliment!! the abuse of gingers here has even been spearheaded by government groups with main roads victoria making a commercial to reduce road fatality’s saying “everytime you use your phone while driving two gingers get fresh with each other”. what this has to do with anything except to suggest that we should support the push to stop gingers breeding is beyond me. so as bad as things have gotten in the UK believe me they are just as bad in Australia. it gives me some small hope to hear things are not as bad in the US for us red heads, maybe i will move there, though im sure soon enough the persicution will be rampant there aswell.

  10. I recall that back in the hysterical days of the Inquisitiion, and perhaps earlier, it was put about that red hair was a sign of the devil. This would explain the worldwide persecution of redheads through the centuries, and which probably made relations between the British and the Celts (whose red hair is actually a result of their Viking heritage) of Scotland and Eire.

    • I know this is being nit-picky and way off topic, but “the Celts” of which you speak were actually the pre-Roman, and pre-Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Britain (as much as the modern Welsh and Irish like to think they’re purely Celtic). The Vikings didn’t invade Britain until about 400-1000 years later…so the Celts didn’t have Viking heritage. Sorry to be so picky.

      • I should qualify that by saying many Irish and Scottish people have Nordic ancestry, but that came later than the Celts.

  11. I do hope that nobody thinks that I was actually present during the Inquisition, which I was not, as the TARDIS has not yet stopped at my home for boarding….

  12. Being mean to people with red hair is a nasty little social convulsion that I suspect has its roots in something very, very old. Redheads are bad luck in many old European cultures (don’t allow then on ships, they’re bad luck) and red hair has , confusingly, also been associated with antisemitism (on the medieval stage, the evil Jew was traditionally read-haired and red-bearded.

  13. Ginger prejudice is by no means universal in Britain but TV jokes about ginger prejudice make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. A bit like the blue eyes/brown eyes experiment. Great exposition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVN_0qvuhhw

  14. Just one moment! Has the world forgotten Miss Rogers?

  15. I do like the French pronunciation for ginger which essentially sounds like “johnjohn” – I don’t think it has to have a negative connotation when spoken with a French accent…

  16. I think Lynne may have been thinking of that other splendid English insult: “Minger” (pronounced as in “singer”), meaning an ugly person; the base verb being “to ming”. Ginger does not work the same way.

    • The pronunciation of ‘ginger’ that rhymes with ‘minger’ is a play on that. It’s recent, but it does exist.

      • Where are you getting this from Lynne? Ginger never rhymes with minger. Well, not in England at least.

        The other vaguely related and interesting word is “minge”. (With no “minger” noun or [mindger] pronunciation. Has that crossed the pond yet?

      • Regularly used a few years ago in SE England to refer to Chris Evans, for one. Just because you haven’t heard it doesn’t mean no one’s said it!

      • Language Hat covered this some, see comments at: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/002911.php

      • Lynne is right. My red haired brother in law refers to himself as “a ginger”, to rhyme with singer.

      • Ali G uses the word ginger (pronounced so that it rhymes with singer) in his song “Me Julie” with Shaggy. “you’re fitter than the spice girls, including the ginger”…

      • I haven’t heard Ali G’s song, but from your reference, he seems to be flinging a zinger to Ginger (Spice).

  17. Pingback: Enough already. « Geauga Doggy

  18. … and that’s not to mention the cockney meaning!

    Anyone else familiar with that? Or am I the only duffer with a china who’s an iron hoof?

  19. I did not know back in the 1990s that Geri Halliwell was called Ginger Spice because of her hair colour.
    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2169672/Gingers-dating-launches-singles-looking-red-hot-lover-theyre-hoping-Geri-Halliwell-Prince-Harry-join.html

  20. Re Ginger minger. The English are so fond of rhymes and alliteration that they will happily change the pronunciation of a word to make it work as a verbal joke – e.g. ‘gin and sin’ for gin and Cinzano.

    To make the phrase ‘ginger minger’ work in this way, you have to mispronounce the word ‘ginger quite radically – you harden the first ‘g’ and rhyme it with ‘singer’. I’ve also heard the phrase where ‘ginger’ keeps its normal pronunciation and ‘minger’ is given a hard ‘g’ to rhyme with it. It’s a perfectly vile phrase – please don’t let it catch on in the US!

  21. The reasons for the average British WASP disparaging red-heads (aka carrot-tops) are quite simply racist. We associate the characteristic with the Roma (gypsies), and to a much lesser extent the Irish, whom we still believe to be petty crooks working outside the law .
    Obviously this is not a problem in America, malnly because of the difficulties involved in getting a horse-drawn caravan acoss the Bering Straits.

  22. What do you call orange tabby cats in the US ? I ask because they are usually called Ginger Cats – sometimes Marmalade – see Orlando the Marmalade Cat.

    http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=orlando+the+marmalade+cat&hl=en&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=SFtmUP2dOMix0AWH44HACw&sqi=2&ved=0CDMQsAQ&biw=1138&bih=529

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Gingers were cats before they were redheads. I have a ginger cat I have elected to call Orlando as I loved the books. When he is bellowing for his nosh he gets called the Ginger Winger.

  23. Used to denote red-haired people in Australia, “ginger” dates back to at least the early 1920s, when the comic strip “Ginger Meggs” was first published. This starred a red-haired Dennis-the-Menace type.

    Why you’d want to snipe at red-haired people is beyond me, but I’d like to point out that there is a big difference between childish taunting and name- calling and “persicution” (sic).

  24. I just started to notice the word “Ginger” in America, but only on the internet (as of about six months ago), and never spoken. Redhead is still the most common, and I’ve never heard anyone speak badly of redheads, with the exception of the stereotype that redheads are quick to anger or have bad tempers. I have always loved girls with red hair, it such a beautiful rarity, so I don’t understand why anyone would want to come up with disparaging names. In any case, it’s probably a case of the younger Americans (age 20 and below) having heard it or seen it somewhere like in a Harry Potter book and adopting it as their own new slang without understanding the connotations abroad. Other than taht, I vote that it is “over the top” as we already have the adequate adn very common “redhead.”

  25. When I was at school in North-West England, it was common to call ginger kids “blood nut”. Similarly, kids with sticky-out (is this a Britishism?) ears were called “wing nut”.

  26. Are there other names for people with red hair in the UK?

    In the U.S. there’s “auburn,” “strawberry blond,” “redhead,” and “carrot-top.” The orange-and-white cats are called “calico,” not ginger; I’ve heard “marmalade” a few times.

    • Striped cats are called tabbies, not calicos. There are orange/ white and grey/white tabbies usually. Calico cats are more spotted, with orange, black, and white patches, though our calico has two orange-striped tabby pattern front legs. Calicos are sometimes called “tortoiseshell” or “torties” if their patches are smaller and more blended (eg, you can’t tell they’re spotted from far away).

  27. ra_castro@msn.com

    But don’t forget Ginger, the redhead from Gilligan’s Island (TV Series 1964–1967). For older Americans who remember the program, that would be the first reference a ginger.

  28. Pingback: The NYPD Blues need to learn to love the Reds – Expat - My Telegraph

  29. I don’t get it. Henry the VIII and Elizabeth the I had red hair. Why would the Brit’s make fun of their own heritage?

    • Dave, it’s a puzzle. It is a bizarre thing to be prejudiced about. Why not hate people with blue eyes?

      I think that many Brits think that, unlike most other prejudice, this is a harmless joke, because of course no-one could really object to the colour of someone’s hair. So, it is the one socially acceptable prejudice and thus provides an outlet for those who have the need to abuse someone. But it has gone way beyond good-natured ribbing and is often truly nasty, although in most cases I don’t think the abuser intends any offence or understands that they are being offensive.

      Perhaps an earlier post is correct in saying that it is a veiled way of being racist about Gypsies or the Irish, although I’m a 50 yr old Brit and I had never picked up on these connotations. Perhaps racism is the origin of the attitude, but I think many Ginger-haters now probably do so without being aware of these overtones.

      • Ivan- the prejudice against redheads dates back to early superstitions that those with red hair were marked by the devil or are witches. Those ancient biases run deep, and redheaded and left handed people are two of the most prevalent targets.

    • The Tudors were, of course, Welsh. And also the most appalling rulers we ever had.

  30. Pingback: Good On Us | Not One-Off Britishisms

  31. This article and all the replies have been very interesting. I really do not understand why in this day and time somebody;s hair color is cause for the kind of reaction reported here. I never heard it before this year, in Kentucky, in the USA – but now I hear it all the time.

  32. Recently, they found descriptions of some of the “apostles” in the dead sea scrolls. King Salomon was described as being a great big man with fiery hair like a lion’s mane! John the baptist was also described therein as a sort of preaching prophet who’s hair was the color of warm honey… a “man of light palor ( skin tone ). It wasn’t just JUDAS!!!

  33. Pingback: The 12 Disciples... and Bartholomew - Alan Rudnick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s