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shameless pleading

Indian giver

They can have Manhattan back anytime they want it.

Dear Word Detective What is the origin of the phrase “Indian giver”? When did it come about? Did it always imply that the giver was duplicitous? I can think of several alternate original meanings. For example, it could have been a white description of native North American potlatch ritualistic giving and receiving (albeit misunderstood), and in this sense, an evaluatively neutral description. Or, it could have been a pejorative referring to whites’ practices of “giving” something to the Indians and then taking it back when the land became needed. Or, it could reflect and essentially neutral description of the whites’ interpretation of native’s unfamiliarity with the conventions of bourgeois private property, as imported from Europe and imposed on this continent. — Dan Poor, New York City.

Y’know, I don’t think I’ve ever received a question that contained the word “bourgeois” before. Reminds me of the day back in 1969 (oh boy, here he goes again), when a friend of mine decided to shave off his mustache because it was, in his words, a “bourgeois affectation.” Yeah, right. This from someone who carried a tattered but utterly unread copy of “Being and Nothingness” everywhere he went for three solid years.

Surveying the various explanations for “Indian giver” you offer, I’d say the truth contains a bit of all three. The phrase dates back to the early 19th century and originally meant someone who gives a gift in the expectation of receiving something of greater value in return, which was indeed a custom among Indians that must have struck early European settlers as rather odd. Later on, the phrase came to mean a “false gift,” as the adjective “Indian” itself took on the pejorative meaning of “false” or “mock,” a sense also found in “Indian Summer” and “Indian corn.” While it’s true that the European settlers had a far worse reputation when it came to trustworthiness than the Indians did, the victors in history usually get to make up the idioms, so it’s doubtful that “Indian giver” refers to the manner in which the settlers treated the Indians. It would be a quite a stretch to credit 19th century European settlers with the honesty to have recognized that they, and not the Indians, were the “Indian givers” in most cases.


1 comment to Indian giver

  • Lisa

    Wondering if you have a cite for the early 19th c. reference – I’m having the argument with someone that the phrase originated from a misunderstanding of the custom of potlatch, and I’d like to have a source. Thanks!

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