Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I don't know why British people call red hair "ginger."

Today's post is just another of many random things I don't know. The hair color we call red is not truly red; most shades we call red are actually orange, of one kind or another.

But ginger? Where does that come from? Ginger roots are a light brown, like so:

And ginger flowers could be any of a number of colors:

The British have an ugly and well-documented prejudice against red-haired people, which I assume dates back to the days of the Viking raids. The Celts were small and dark, and red-haired children were probably the bastard offspring of Viking rapists and invaders (hence "red-headed stepchild"). But that still doesn't explain the origin of "ginger," because I'm fairly confident ginger doesn't grow in Scandinavia.

Plus, according to Holbein, Henry VIII was red-haired:

And Prince Harry has red hair now. If he ever becomes king, I hope and expect to see much more discussion about "gingerism" and the origin of the term. Anyone have any guesses?


Claire said...

GOod question. Of course, now what I REALLY want to go do is watch the Ginger Kids episode of South Park again.

Anonymous said...

They use the term in Israel too. In the Fairfax district Lucy was called "gingy" fairly often.

It may have to do with the color of the dried ginger or the color of things like "gingerbread" which can be sort of auburn/orange.

Mary Queen of Scots was a redhead too (and wasn't Elizabeth I?)


Karen Olson said...

Elizabeth I was a redhead, although not sure about Mary Queen of Scots.

And because of Titian, the painter, many times a red hair is also called titian...like Nancy Drew is in some books, while she's blonde in others.

AnswerGirl said...

Yes, Elizabeth was famously red-haired! Mary Stuart may have been as well, but the story I remember about her is that she had lost all of her hair by the time she was beheaded -- and when the executioner grabbed what he thought was her hair, her bald head rolled free.

Kevin Wignall said...

I've always assumed it related to ginger nuts (which are ginger based biscuits and reasonably similar in colour to ginger hair), not least because of nut being slang for head. We also call them "carrot tops" which is at least more accurate. This all refers, of course, to orange-red hair, rather than anything darker.

The prejudice is light-hearted and I suspect arises out of the fact that truly ginger people (who are also very pale and befreckled) stand out from the crowd. I don't buy the viking origins. Firstly, some of the early British tribes were red-haired, secondly because the Anglo-Saxons were the dominant cultural force for 500 years with their blonde and red colouring, and then the Normans (or "Norse-Men") took over (and the name William Rufus gives the clue to their colouring).

Incidentally, I think the prejudice is worse among the Scots, where ironically, red hair has always been more common. I made the mistake of suggesting a well-known Scots author was ginger and he wasn't amused.

Anna said...

I think it's because ginger is sharp and spicy and sometimes a little overpowering. I never thought it was related to the actual color. I know of what I speak - my very sharp-tongued and spicy sister is a redhead!

AnswerGirl said...

The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of the use of "ginger" to mean "red-haired" is 1525, so no, probably not.

AnswerGirl said...

I've just been through and deleted a couple of anonymous comments. I don't allow anonymous comments on this blog. You don't have to register with Blogger, but I do ask that you at least sign your posts.

The comment above was a response to two anonymous comments that "Ginger" might be a reference to the "Gilligan's Island" character. Since the first documented use of "ginger" to mean "red-haired" was in 1525, 400 years before the invention of television, this is simply not possible. Sorry.

Isagenix's GI Jane RN said...

I think the Cartman's writers had to be thinking of Ginger Baker.....the iconic Bristish drummer ..ie Blind Faith .....Cream.... i have always thought that that had to be the origin of Ginger for a red hair. GINGER Baker is a magnificent red head who everyone knows and loves.

Mrs Low said...

I think it comes from Giligans Island era. "ginger" was a red head.

AnswerGirl said...

The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of the use of "ginger" to mean "red-haired" is 1525. "Gilligan's Island" didn't show up until 1964.

Gangis said...

Discrimination against ginger( red hair ) people has been going on since time and memorial from the Egyptians to present day.
Yes I believe that this discrimination is a form of rascim.
Why do gingers get ridiculed, because we don't need to work hard at being notice we already stand out in a crowd because of our colour.
Where people with darker colour are lost in a sea of dark colours "jealousy".
I find it funny that the names people call each other like b.....d, rat. When calling some with red hair they then say ginger b.....d or ginger rat"rodent" or when they just say ginger nut that this is hurtfull. Yes when u r a child it can be untill you realise that this is the best insult they can come up with, to me it's not an insult.. I like former treasure secretary of the labour government Danny Alexander said after Harriet harmon called him a ginger rodent am proud to be ginger or a red head

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

I've just deleted an anonymous comment that said "South Park" probably wasn't referencing a term that was hundreds of years old. Actually, Matt and Trey are well-educated and widely-read, and at least one of the "South Park" writers in its glory days was Ivy League-educated. I wouldn't be surprised at all by their using British slang if it amused them.

Yosefa said...

Could there be any connection to turmeric, which looks like ginger on the outside, but is orange inside?