September 02, 2013

Origin of "Indian giver"

I think I've posted an origin of "Indian giver" before. It comes up whenever someone uses the phrase.

But I can't find a posting dedicated to the origin, so here's one. It claims the phrase goes back to Lewis and Clark:

The History Behind The Phrase 'Don't Be An Indian Giver'

By Lakshmi GandhiSlaughter writes that in one instance, a group of Indians offered Lewis and Clark some roots, which the explorers rejected because they felt that "[the Indians'] expectation for those presents of a few roots is three or four times their real worth." Turning down the gift, however, insulted their hosts and led Lewis and Clark to label the Indians "forward and impertinent, and thievish," in their journals.

Author David Wilton argues in his 2004 book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends that the concept of an "Indian gift" arose when white settlers misinterpreted the Native American concept of bartering:

"To an Indian, the giving of gifts was an extension of this system of trade and a gift was expected to be reciprocated with something of equal value. Europeans, upon encountering this practice, misunderstood it, considering it uncouth and impolite. To them, trade was conducted with money and gifts were freely given with nothing expected in return. So this native practice got a bad reputation among the white colonists of North America and the term eventually became a playground insult."

This definition stuck and the phrase "Indian giver" made its first appearance in linguist John Russell Barlett's Dictionary of Americanisms in 1848.
Comment:  I've read various explanations of "Indian giver" before. Including one claim that it referred to the white man's penchant for making and breaking deals.

But the above explanation may be the most common one. I don't know if most people think it began with Lewis and Clark, but most think it refers to a misunderstanding of Native customs.

For more on "Indian giver," see Limbaugh Calls Warren "Squaw Indian Giver" and Lauer Calls Vieira "Indian Giver."

1 comment:

Rob said...

For more on the subject, see:

What or Who Is an Indian Giver? A History of the Offensive Term