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Old 10-06-2019, 11:42 AM
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Which side is the term "Indian Giver" perjorative towards?


I don't know why the term just entered my head, but some years ago I used it for some reason and was told it was insulting to Native Americans. I always thought it was referring to Europeans being the bad guys . As in "here's some land, nah just kidding, we want it back" Or as Wikipedia describes, accepting something as a gift and not realizing it was actually intended as trade.

So, how do you see it?
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:03 PM
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When a child over fifty years ago I can tell you how we used it, and it was common to use it back then circa the early 60's. Definitely we understood that it meant this was how an Indian behaved. And I mean an American Indian when I say Indian. We used it with same definition as the Wiki definition I found when I looked it up:

"Indian giver is an American expression, used to describe a person who gives a "gift" and later wants it back......"
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:15 PM
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We didn't see it as racist back then but I can definitely, in these days where we are more considerate of our fellow humans, see that this is a term that would be found offensive. So I'm going to tell you that you would be wise to let the term fade out of usage. Even if the original meaning was what you thought, still, enough people would have been using it the way we used it fifty years ago so in effect it can be thought of as racist.
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:20 PM
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Parsing it, the more likely to mean "Indian giver" than "Indian giver." Americans didn't have much liking for Native Americans and also didn't see anything hypocritical in breaking promises to them.
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:21 PM
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When I was a child we used it the same was as Stinky Pete. And I think the origin of the phrase was that the local American Indians didn't view land as something that was owned, so when they "gave it away" they thought they were offering temporary hunting rights or something

Anyway, I agree that the term should not be used in polite company.
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:29 PM
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Originally Posted by Stinky Pete View Post
We didn't see it as racist back then but I can definitely, in these days where we are more considerate of our fellow humans, see that this is a term that would be found offensive. So I'm going to tell you that you would be wise to let the term fade out of usage. Even if the original meaning was what you thought, still, enough people would have been using it the way we used it fifty years ago so in effect it can be thought of as racist.
Less than 50 years ago even. I was born in 1980 and it was certainly used in the 80's and 90's.
I think that short of blatantly racist/hateful words, most of these types of things were still alive and well until the 2000's when people started getting more PC. I don't think anyone thought anything of the term Indian Giver. I know I didn't associate it with any Native American stereotype, it was just something that was said. Along those same lines is using the word gyp (or jip) to say that someone ripped you off. It wasn't until the last 10 or so years that I came to understand it was short for Gypsy and was actually a slam on Roma people. I have a feeling I'm not alone in not having any idea that that's what it meant.

A few years ago the Walking Dead got slammed for saying "eenie meenie miney moe" because the original version of that contained the n-word. Again, I'm guessing a lot of people would have no idea.
I'm always surprised when I hear "and then there were none" or "and then there was 1 (or 2 or 3...)". I can't believe that phrase is still being used as often as it is.
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:35 PM
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When a child over fifty years ago I can tell you how we used it, and it was common to use it back then circa the early 60's. Definitely we understood that it meant this was how an Indian behaved. And I mean an American Indian when I say Indian. We used it with same definition as the Wiki definition I found when I looked it up:

"Indian giver is an American expression, used to describe a person who gives a "gift" and later wants it back......"
This is exactly how I heard it used (and, likely, how I used it myself), and the understandng of the meaning behind it, when I was a kid in the 1970s.
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:42 PM
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I didn't know that "gyp" was related to Gypsies, and I had no idea until quite recently that "eeny meeny miney moe, catch a tiger by the toe..." used to have more problematic words. But as a kid, I knew that "Indian giver" was a slam on Indians. What I didn't know was that apparently "Indian summer" was, too. I always thought that was the sweet final warm days before winter. that we got in this "Indian" nation.
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:45 PM
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Always heard it to mean you can't trust Indians. That converse makes no sense, Europeans were known for taking, not giving.
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Old 10-06-2019, 02:02 PM
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AIUI, the term Indian giver comes from misunderstandings by Europeans of various Indian traditions, such as Potlatch, where gifts are not meant to be kept, but passed on to someone else or returned to the giver.
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Old 10-06-2019, 02:16 PM
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Less than 50 years ago even. I was born in 1980 and it was certainly used in the 80's and 90's.
Sienfeld episode, 1993 (starting at around 4:10)
(Here is a good NPR article on the phrase.)
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Old 10-06-2019, 03:15 PM
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This is exactly how I heard it used (and, likely, how I used it myself), and the understandng of the meaning behind it, when I was a kid in the 1970s.
Also how it was used in the 1950's and 1960's in my experience: a person who gave you something as a gift and then wanted it back, which we considered rude and improper; and a dig at American Indians who were supposed to have behaved like that. I don't think, at the time, that we had any idea at all of differing concepts of types of ownership, let alone of societies that gave things readily because it was considered rude and improper to not give what you were asked for -- and that included its being rude and improper not to give back when desired the thing you'd asked for and been given earlier.

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What I didn't know was that apparently "Indian summer" was, too. I always thought that was the sweet final warm days before winter. that we got in this "Indian" nation.
I've wondered about that one ever since I figured out that "Indian giver" is a racial slur. Was/is it called "Indian summer" because it isn't really summer, but will shortly revert back to cold weather, and so is derogatory in the same way as "Indian giver"? Or did it get the name because American Indians told the settlers about it, explaining that it probably wasn't going to stay consistently cold after the first fall frost, but that the warm days following that frost would be a relatively short time followed by more consistently cold weather? -- because I'm not sure, and even if I were sure the origins were for the second reason the person(s) I was talking with might think I meant the first reason, I now avoid using the term.
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Old 10-06-2019, 03:35 PM
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Always heard it to mean you can't trust Indians. That converse makes no sense, Europeans were known for taking, not giving.
Oh, Europeans were known for giving, all right. It’s not so much that they gave as what they gave: blankets lousy with smallpox. It was straight-up genocide via biological warfare.

Reading through this thread, I see that poxy blankets are not what the phrase “Indian giver” refers to. But European settlers definitely had their own history of malevolent gifts.
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Old 10-06-2019, 04:44 PM
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...I've wondered about that one ever since I figured out that "Indian giver" is a racial slur. Was/is it called "Indian summer" because (1) it isn't really summer, but will shortly revert back to cold weather, and so is derogatory in the same way as "Indian giver"? Or did it get the name because (2) American Indians told the settlers about it, explaining that it probably wasn't going to stay consistently cold after the first fall frost, but that the warm days following that frost would be a relatively short time followed by more consistently cold weather? -- because I'm not sure, and even if I were sure the origins were for the second reason the person(s) I was talking with might think I meant the first reason, I now avoid using the term.
Numbers added

I grew up assuming (2), but I now think the actual origin is (1). Anyway, I don't have a good name to replace that word, but I've been avoiding it, too.
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Old 10-06-2019, 05:36 PM
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I don't have a good name to replace that word, but I've been avoiding it, too.
Me neither; and I could certainly use one, it's often quite a distinct season around here (though there's an occasional year when it doesn't happen, or only for a day or two.)

Anybody want to make some suggestions? (Those who don't know the term we need a new word for: a period of warm days after the first frost, but before winter really sets in; often as warm, or nearly as warm, as moderate summer days. It's not an astronomical season; warm days after equinox but before frost don't really count. Warm days after it's frosted in some microclimates but not others may be considered to count -- this is a hilly area with large lakes, and the first frost date depends on exactly where you are -- I've seen the frost line cut across the middle of my fields.)
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Old 10-06-2019, 05:47 PM
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Yes, those wonderful late warm days, usually in early November, after it's turned to fall, and there's been frost, and leaves are falling and all that, and then, suddenly, this gift of the weather gods -- a week or two of lovely warm hang-out-without-jackets weather.
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Old 10-06-2019, 06:35 PM
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Old 10-06-2019, 07:31 PM
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Old 10-06-2019, 07:58 PM
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AIUI, the term Indian giver comes from misunderstandings by Europeans of various Indian traditions, such as Potlatch, where gifts are not meant to be kept, but passed on to someone else or returned to the giver.
That seems unlikely - Potlatch is associated with the natives of the Pacific Northwest, but the phrase goes back to well before English speakers had any experience with those natives.

I suspect that all the "Indian" phrases have the same origin. Just as the British used "Dutch" as a derogatory adjective implying "false" (a "Dutch uncle" isn't your uncle, he just lectures you like he is, "Dutch courage" is the courage you get from being drunk, and "Dutch treat" isn't a treat at all). Using "false" in the place of "Indian" works for

"Indian Summer" (not really summer - just seems like it for a little while)
"Indian Giver" (false giver)
and probably other terms now long since forgotten.\

(P.S. And of course, using "Indian" or "Dutch" to signify "falseness" (and using "Chinese" to connote incomprehensibility as English speakers also do) is a slur, and shouldn't be done.

Last edited by Andy L; 10-06-2019 at 08:00 PM.
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Old 10-06-2019, 08:00 PM
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Old 10-06-2019, 08:50 PM
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(P.S. And of course, using "Indian" or "Dutch" to signify "falseness" (and using "Chinese" to connote incomprehensibility as English speakers also do) is a slur, and shouldn't be done.
Never heard "Chinese" to "connote incomprehensibly"--I've always heard that "it is Greek to me." Do you think that is a slur that shouldn't be used?
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Old 10-06-2019, 09:28 PM
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Never heard "Chinese" to "connote incomprehensibly"--I've always heard that "it is Greek to me." Do you think that is a slur that shouldn't be used?
I should have said "incomprehensible" or "chaotic" as in "Chinese telephone" (the game people usually just call "Telephone" these days) or "Chinese firedrill"

"It's all Greek to me" isn't using Greek as an adjective, and has the part about "to me" which makes it less of a problem.
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Old 10-06-2019, 10:27 PM
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That seems unlikely - Potlatch is associated with the natives of the Pacific Northwest, but the phrase goes back to well before English speakers had any experience with those natives.
Not necessarily that specific tradition. I thought there was some similar tradition among East Coast Indians, but perhaps I am mistaken.

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"It's all Greek to me" isn't using Greek as an adjective, and has the part about "to me" which makes it less of a problem.
My understanding is that "it's Greek to me" comes from this: Western scholars in the Medieval Era (and later periods) would sometimes run across passages in ancient texts that they didn't understand. It was usually some Greek words or phrases and the scholars only knew Latin. Hence the phrase applied to anything someone doesn't understand. (Now chances are someone's going to come along and tell me I'm wrong.)

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Old 10-07-2019, 12:47 AM
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Never heard "Chinese" to "connote incomprehensibly"
The expression I used to hear was that something was "harder than Chinese arithmetic" - which meant it was confusing and difficult to do.
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Old 10-07-2019, 01:43 AM
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The term "Indian Giver" when I was growing up (60's) meant someone who wanted their gift back. Like most European mischaracterizations, it was a result of improperly understanding native customs. In an economy where there was no money, and people were relatively nomadic, there wasn't really the mentality to accumulate wealth or put specific values on things. So natives who had a surplus or wanted favours gave a gift of what they could, and expected a return gift later when (presumably) they would be in need. Europeans saw the "I gave you a gift so now you owe me" and applied it against their concept of a gift as "given with no expectation of reciprocity" and therefore considered Indians bestowing "gifts" as rude, greedy, uncouth... pick your adjective. A simple culture clash, insensitivity on the part of occupiers.

Potlach was the same only different. The west coast Indians lived in a very rich environment. (In fact, they had a hierarchy in some tribes where some members were like slaves and the chief class reaped the benefit of their work). Again, with no money to store value - you could only accumulate so much in the way of carved chests, woven blankets, leather goods, weapons, etc. When someone accumulated too much, they gained prestige by having a big feast and giving it all away, so they could start over. It's very logical - spread the wealth, everyone benefits, the giver gets prestige. NOTHING to do with "Indian Giver" which I understood was an idea from the other side of the Rockies. (And toward the end, with some natives working in paying jobs and trading to accumulate large amounts of money, it got to the point where the RCMP would have to swoop in and confiscate large amounts of goods including things like washing machines from Sears when they heard of a hoard of goods destined for a potlach -at the instigation of the local church authorities who deemed it uncivilized, and that it ran counter to the protestant work ethic to have drunken parties and give away all their worldly goods. After all, Jesus would never have approved of people giving away all they owned to the less fortunate.)

The idea that Indians were given smallpox blankets is more a trope than anything. It appears to have been suggested and attempted only one time when Chief Pontiac was besieging Fort Pitt. Apparently one group of Indians were given a few blankets from the smallpox ward. Its unclear whether this worked or whether the natives already had smallpox.
https://www.history.com/news/colonis...llpox-blankets

Indian Summer I never saw as a pejorative growing up. It described a time when things seemed unnaturally warmer but winter was just around the corner. MY impression (not sure why) was that it was the time Indians could use for that last opportunity for laying in provisions for winter, presumably something the settlers learned from the Indians along with the sort of cultural exchange like Thanksgiving feasts.

"It's all Greek to me..." In the older days, up until WWII, many students seeking a higher education would take Latin, then Greek. Latin at least was somewhat readable, the alphabet was pretty much the same, some word roots were familiar. Greek, on the other hand, was totally incomprehensible without serious study, as there was a whole new alphabet to learn. Hence it referred to not Greek people, but that the texts were in classical Greek (Homer, Plato, Euripides... etc.) It meant something would not be the least bit understandable unless you had some deep and otherwise useless learning. "This legalese in the warranty is all Greek to me..." It's not a racial insult.

Dutch courage (drunk) Dutch Uncle (unreliable, liar) etc. date back to when the Dutch and English were the main rivals in overseas trade in the 1600's as the Dutch established colonies across the world; the two fought a few wars and eventually the Dutch were overrun by bigger continental armies. The concept includes many other pejoratives, including "going Dutch" as a date too cheap to pay the other's way. In a similar way the term "French" was applied to odd behaviours ascribed to the French. "French Letter" was a euphemism for condoms, due to some famous letter (which I believe they actually found in the royal archives a while ago) where one monarch asked for some sheepskin condoms from the ambassador to France. It was the trope that the French were unbridiled fornicators and used these things regularly. "Cheese eating surrender monkeys" is only the latest in a long line of insults.

I think Chinese was not always used in the pejorative. Chinese fire drill for example, is in my experience where everyone jumps out of the car doors and back in a different one. In the last few centuries, the Chinese culture was seen as bizarre and often incomprehensible by western standards, so "Chinese' would be applied to many sorts of "impossible to explain" behaviour. More European conceit and arrogance.

Last edited by md2000; 10-07-2019 at 01:48 AM.
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Old 10-07-2019, 01:52 AM
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Or did it get the name because American Indians told the settlers about it, explaining that it probably wasn't going to stay consistently cold after the first fall frost, but that the warm days following that frost would be a relatively short time followed by more consistently cold weather? -- because I'm not sure, and even if I were sure the origins were for the second reason the person(s) I was talking with might think I meant the first reason, I now avoid using the term.
That doesn't seem to make sense, since those "summer rebounds" are part of European weather as well, from Spain to Sweden and including the UK. In Spanish we even have multiple names for those "little summers" depending on the exact date on which they happen; the names are references to saints' feastdays (St. Martin's little summer, St. Michael's little summer... right now we're having a bad case of St. Francis' little summer).

And all those "Europeans" in posts prior to mine should be changed to "Britons", "Englishmen"... y'all are talking about a specific group of Europeans, a specific clash of customs and a specific expression in a specific language.
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Old 10-07-2019, 07:52 AM
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Little summer. That's not a bad name for it. Thanks.
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Old 10-07-2019, 08:57 AM
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Dutch courage (drunk) Dutch Uncle (unreliable, liar) etc. date back to when the Dutch and English were the main rivals in overseas trade in the 1600's as the Dutch established colonies across the world; the two fought a few wars and eventually the Dutch were overrun by bigger continental armies.
AIUI your Dutch uncle is your mother's lover, who treats you indulgently to keep in well with her.

I have not come across the unreliable, liar, implication. Reporting from the UK.
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Old 10-07-2019, 08:57 AM
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I just want to add my voice vote to the explanations given above.

When I was a kid, "Indian giver" meant someone who expected that he could or would reclaim his gift. It was rooted in the belief that American Indians had such a casual relationship to ownership. There was never any belief that the term related to insidious European land dealings -- that is undoubtedly (to me) a much more recent interpretations.


That said, I don't know of any real American Indian behavior that would warrant this term. American Indians had the same understanding of ownership and personal property that Europeans did (except for communally owned things, like land. And even there, families had "their" hunting preserves, which others didn't violate).

An Iroquois once explained to me that a chief was obligated to give things to members of his tribe things they requested, but that's different. The same rule didn't apply to other members of the tribe, or to dealings between the tribe and other groups.


I'm confused by the references to Potlatch gifts being reclaimable. That goes against what I've read about Potlatch -- A Potlatch gift was a gift in the usual sense of the word, and once given was the property of the giftee. I can't see it as the origin of the phrase "Indian giver".

For an interesting take on the origin and meaning of Potlatch, see Marvin Harris' essays on it, in his book Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches for instance. I know that knowledge of this has become widespread -- I've read others referring to it without citing the source.

http://lust-for-life.org/Lust-For-Li..._1974_10pp.pdf
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Old 10-07-2019, 09:47 AM
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The expression I used to hear was that something was "harder than Chinese arithmetic" - which meant it was confusing and difficult to do.
I believe the actual expression is "harder than Chinese algebra." Since algebra substitutes letters for numerical values, using Chinese characters would make it even harder. (I first encountered it in the Tom Waits song "Pasties and a g-string," in which he says "I'm getting harder than Chinese algebra.)
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Old 10-07-2019, 10:06 AM
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The 'Dutch uncle' phrase I always understood as being someone who isn't your uncle, but is going to give you advice anyway.

I also understood 'Indian giver' as someone who gives a gift but then wants it back. But apart from the phrase, I never heard it pushed as a stereotype that American Indians did that. I don't know of any jokes about Amerindians wanting gifts back, I never heard anyone complain that they did that, nothing. If it's a stereotype, it's one I never heard in any other context.

And it would make more sense, at least to me, if there were a phrase connoting someone being a "white man's treaty giver". That would resonate more. Sort of "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" except with white settlers, although that is not quite the same thing.

I am probably a bit older than most of y'all, and I haven't heard the expression since Achilles was a pup.

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Old 10-07-2019, 10:19 AM
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I didn't know that "gyp" was related to Gypsies, and I had no idea until quite recently that "eeny meeny miney moe, catch a tiger by the toe..." used to have more problematic words. But as a kid, I knew that "Indian giver" was a slam on Indians. What I didn't know was that apparently "Indian summer" was, too. I always thought that was the sweet final warm days before winter. that we got in this "Indian" nation.
Carol Higgins Clark got a lot of flax about titling one of her books "Gypped." Oprah Winfrey used the word on her show and later mentioned she got so many letters on the subject that she doesn't use it anymore.

It comes fro the idea of those bad Romani people cheating good people.

ETA: A poll in a thread I stated on the subject

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Old 10-07-2019, 10:26 AM
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[snip]

Along those same lines is using the word gyp (or jip) to say that someone ripped you off. It wasn't until the last 10 or so years that I came to understand it was short for Gypsy and was actually a slam on Roma people. I have a feeling I'm not alone in not having any idea that that's what it meant.
Thoughts from another UK participant: I long had the impression that "gyp" = rip off, cheat, pull a fast one: was not -- in Britain anyway -- about the Roma; but applied to the inhabitants of the land of Egypt (leaving aside the Roma's thing about their originally coming from a putative "Little Egypt", hence the word "Gypsy"). Brits in Egypt -- especially those in transit there, to / from India via the Suez Canal -- used to be overwhelmed by locals operating all imaginable, and some unimaginable, stratagems to part them from their money: I've always seen the verb "to gyp" as a reluctant tribute-in-words from the beleaguered Britons to the Egyptian hucksters, acknowledging the latter's ingenuity and tirelessness in pursuing their objective.

So, not entirely pejorative -- flavoured with some admiration. A positive "spin" of a kind which could perhaps be put on various expressions of the sort. AFAIK the American expression "to jew down", doesn't occur in Britain (though we've been able to be as anti-Semitic as anyone else, including seeing Jews as mean, grasping, and of dubious honesty); but it occurs to me similarly, in the "rose-tinted" department -- possible to see as a compliment to a subset of the population, for their renownedly sharp and wide-awake business sense ?

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[snip]

Just as the British used "Dutch" as a derogatory adjective implying "false" (a "Dutch uncle" isn't your uncle, he just lectures you like he is, "Dutch courage" is the courage you get from being drunk, and "Dutch treat" isn't a treat at all).
(My bolding above)

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Dutch courage (drunk) Dutch Uncle (unreliable, liar) etc. date back to when the Dutch and English were the main rivals in overseas trade in the 1600's as the Dutch established colonies across the world; the two fought a few wars and eventually the Dutch were overrun by bigger continental armies. The concept includes many other pejoratives, including "going Dutch" as a date too cheap to pay the other's way.
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AIUI your Dutch uncle is your mother's lover, who treats you indulgently to keep in well with her.

I have not come across the unreliable, liar, implication. Reporting from the UK.
I've been aware of "Dutch uncle" in British parlance, only as someone who is not your uncle, but acts as though he were, especially re advice (as per Andy L) -- though one could be glad to have as mentor, a "Dutch uncle", absent a genuine one to effectively fill that role. "Dutch" thus, implying "second-rate / substitute". I've never come across the unreliable / liar implication -- or Bert Nobbins's mother's-lover one.
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Old 10-07-2019, 11:43 AM
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The worst I could say about 'Dutch uncle' would be that it means 'false uncle". And "false" would not be really negative there anyway. If anyone has used the phrase with other meanings I've never noticed it.

"Gyp" is an unusual one because most people (until recently maybe) had no idea the word was derived from "Gypsy".
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Old 10-07-2019, 12:23 PM
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I believe the actual expression is "harder than Chinese algebra." Since algebra substitutes letters for numerical values, using Chinese characters would make it even harder. (I first encountered it in the Tom Waits song "Pasties and a g-string," in which he says "I'm getting harder than Chinese algebra.)
No, the expression I used to hear was definitely arithmetic. That said, I'm aware there are other versions of the idiom.

And when I was young, the idiom was used to say something was difficult. It wasn't used to say somebody had an erection. Which quite frankly doesn't make a lot of sense.
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Old 10-07-2019, 12:34 PM
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great now i have the Ramones song stuck in my head all-day
Could be worse- it could've been the 1910 Fruitgum Company.
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Old 10-07-2019, 01:23 PM
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National Lampoon had a series of pamphlets from Americans United to Beat the Dutch in their magazine during the 1970's explaining the Dutch Menace, how the Dutch were trying to sap America's moral fibre and destroy society with their funny hats and wood shoes - a fine parody of any xenophobic paranoia typical in America. Featured details like Dutch Elm Disease appearing in North America the same year the Queen of Holland got married. ("Coincidence? I think not") Most such "Dutch" expressions are negative connotations.

Some versions of "Indian Giver" are that natives expected reciprocal gifts - but not understanding European economics, would think "I gave you a pair of moccasins that took my wife a week to make, you should give me one of your axes" even when the European had no intention of trading. Some natives were just as greedy and misguided as some Europeans. Some how this "you owe me" morphed in American slang into someone who expected to be able to repossess their gift, rather than someone who expect a gift twice what they'd given.

Potlachs were never about "reciprocal" or "repossession". They were orgies of giveaways, where a man completed gave away as much as he could, no strings attached, and got much social prestige from it. The only reciprocity element in it was that it was expected behaviour in that society from anyone who had more than they could possibly use, so all the "rich" people in the village eventually got around to it. As tade good made life richer, it became more common and more extravagant.

(I read something once about the impact of trade goods on Northwest Coast Indians. When the white man showed up and began trading industrial goods for furs and fish, suddenly life became incredibly rich. A canoe used to be made over weeks and months by hollowing a log by charring it with stones pulled from a fire. With iron axes, it took no time at all. Same with carving like totem poles - anyone could make them in no time. Rope nets, fish hooks, harpoons for whales, rifles for game - all suddenly were easily available tasks like gathering food took far less manpower and life was incredibly richer - so more goods to give away. )

Last edited by md2000; 10-07-2019 at 01:23 PM.
  #38  
Old 10-07-2019, 02:05 PM
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Simmertime.
Has a nice sound to it; but sounds to me like it should apply to really hot weather, just short of boiling. I might start using it for hot stretches in the summer; but the fall warm weather I'm talking about is almost never that hot -- one of the nice things about it is not needing to worry that it's about to turn scorching.

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Originally Posted by Darren Garrison View Post
Never heard "Chinese" to "connote incomprehensibly"--I've always heard that "it is Greek to me." Do you think that is a slur that shouldn't be used?
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Originally Posted by dtilque View Post
My understanding is that "it's Greek to me" comes from this: Western scholars in the Medieval Era (and later periods) would sometimes run across passages in ancient texts that they didn't understand. It was usually some Greek words or phrases and the scholars only knew Latin. Hence the phrase applied to anything someone doesn't understand.
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"It's all Greek to me..." In the older days, up until WWII, many students seeking a higher education would take Latin, then Greek. Latin at least was somewhat readable, the alphabet was pretty much the same, some word roots were familiar. Greek, on the other hand, was totally incomprehensible without serious study, as there was a whole new alphabet to learn. Hence it referred to not Greek people, but that the texts were in classical Greek (Homer, Plato, Euripides... etc.) It meant something would not be the least bit understandable unless you had some deep and otherwise useless learning. "This legalese in the warranty is all Greek to me..." It's not a racial insult.
It's always been my impression that the implication is that only really well educated people know ancient Greek, or know Greek at all (obviously when the group's English speakers, not modern Greek people); and so what the person's saying who says "it's all Greek to me" is "I'm not educated enough in (whatever field the confusing statement is in) to understand that". If that's the meaning, then it's not a slur on anyone except, possibly, the speaker; who's certainly entitled to state their own ignorance.

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Originally Posted by md2000 View Post
I think Chinese was not always used in the pejorative. Chinese fire drill for example, is in my experience where everyone jumps out of the car doors and back in a different one. In the last few centuries, the Chinese culture was seen as bizarre and often incomprehensible by western standards, so "Chinese' would be applied to many sorts of "impossible to explain" behaviour.
I think that is perjorative, though. It's saying that Chinese people do things that make no sense whatsoever. Getting out of the car and back in again would make no sense if there were a fire, no matter what the culture was; and so is senseless also as a drill.

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Originally Posted by Nava View Post
That doesn't seem to make sense, since those "summer rebounds" are part of European weather as well, from Spain to Sweden and including the UK.
Ah. I didn't realize that. I knew that the first European settlers in what's now the northeast USA were taken by surprise by the harshness of the winter weather -- they knew what latitude they were at, but they didn't know about the Gulf Stream -- so I'd been thinking they might have taken the warmer weather after frost for an indication that the relatively-early frost had been a fluke, and not an indication that really cold weather was going to settle in soon.

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Originally Posted by Nava View Post
In Spanish we even have multiple names for those "little summers" depending on the exact date on which they happen; the names are references to saints' feastdays (St. Martin's little summer, St. Michael's little summer... right now we're having a bad case of St. Francis' little summer).
I also like "little summer". Maybe we should adopt that one.

I don't think the saint's feastday will work, there being a lot less consensus about religious figures; but I wonder whether there is any cultural figure we could add on in that fashion? I can't think of any right now, though.

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Originally Posted by Sangahyando View Post
I've always seen the verb "to gyp" as a reluctant tribute-in-words from the beleaguered Britons to the Egyptian hucksters, acknowledging the latter's ingenuity and tirelessness in pursuing their objective.

So, not entirely pejorative -- flavoured with some admiration. A positive "spin" of a kind which could perhaps be put on various expressions of the sort. AFAIK the American expression "to jew down", doesn't occur in Britain (though we've been able to be as anti-Semitic as anyone else, including seeing Jews as mean, grasping, and of dubious honesty); but it occurs to me similarly, in the "rose-tinted" department -- possible to see as a compliment to a subset of the population, for their renownedly sharp and wide-awake business sense ?
I think it's a real stretch to claim either of those phrases as a tribute, reluctant or otherwise. "To gyp" means to cheat; "to Jew down" means to be so cheap one's unwilling to pay a fair price for the purchase. If you've been using either, please stop.

-- it's true that many people use either or both phrases without thinking about it. I also used to not connect "to gyp" with "gypsy", though as soon as I heard of the derivation it seemed obvious. -- years ago I heard a friend, who knew I'm Jewish (though not practicing), say someone had "Jewed him down." I asked him "And did you Christian him back up?" which took a moment to sink in; then he said "I never thought of it like that!" I never heard him use it again.
  #39  
Old 10-07-2019, 02:26 PM
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ETA: A poll in a thread I stated on the subject
Too late to edit:

I went over there, voted in the poll, and was all set to reply to some of the posters when I noticed the post dates.

I didn't even know it was possible to vote in 2019 in a poll created in 2012.
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Old 10-08-2019, 07:44 AM
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A random thing led on to by the discussion of "it's Greek to me" and similar expressions -- I'm given to understand that the Polish-language equivalent re something incomprehensible to the speaker: is to do with not the Greeks, but the Turks. Rendered into English -- "this is all Turkish to me," or "I'm hearing a Turkish sermon". (Can Dopers with Polish background, confirm or debunk this as appropriate?)

If true -- one wonders why the Poles particularly singled out the Turkish language in this role: I, certainly, don't see the two nations as having had a lot to do with each other, giving occasion for mutual incomprehension -- though they've been up against each other in battle a time or two, e.g. Relief of Vienna 1683.
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Old 10-08-2019, 08:40 AM
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Originally Posted by Sangahyando View Post
A random thing led on to by the discussion of "it's Greek to me" and similar expressions -- I'm given to understand that the Polish-language equivalent re something incomprehensible to the speaker: is to do with not the Greeks, but the Turks. Rendered into English -- "this is all Turkish to me," or "I'm hearing a Turkish sermon". (Can Dopers with Polish background, confirm or debunk this as appropriate?)

If true -- one wonders why the Poles particularly singled out the Turkish language in this role: I, certainly, don't see the two nations as having had a lot to do with each other, giving occasion for mutual incomprehension -- though they've been up against each other in battle a time or two, e.g. Relief of Vienna 1683.
Based on my last visit to Europe - "It's all Hungarian to me." A very different language largely undiluted by Graeco-Roman influences.

Or, from One Day At A Time -
"Beware of Hungarians bearing gifts."
"Don't you mean Greeks?"
"Greeks, Hungarians... any one of those countries where the men dance together."
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Old 10-08-2019, 09:07 AM
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I was all set to post that you're all wrong about "Indian summer", as it's obviously a reference to the days of the British Raj, when one could escape the cool autumn weather by travelling to India, where it would still feel like summer. But if this board has taught me anything, it's to do my research, and the first link I found (from a British newspaper, no less: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/...summer-archive) tells me the phrase was first used in America at least 80 years before British rule in India, and the origin does most likely lie there. However, it does also suggest the term was not necessarily pejorative towards Native Americans, at least at the time.
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Old 10-08-2019, 09:25 AM
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Originally Posted by thorny locust View Post
I also like "little summer". Maybe we should adopt that one.

I don't think the saint's feastday will work, there being a lot less consensus about religious figures; but I wonder whether there is any cultural figure we could add on in that fashion? I can't think of any right now, though.
Just reference the approximate date, it's what the feastday references are a shorthand for. AFAIK, nobody* has bothered prepare a chart assigning the precise nomenclature as a function of starting date, total duration and temperature increase (min, max and weighed average).



* I don't think there's anybody who's gotten a burr up their ass about this particular detail and who combined it with the kind of obsesiveness I'm used to associating with Warhammer players, but there might have been. You never know!
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  #44  
Old 10-08-2019, 10:24 AM
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I think that is pejorative, though. It's saying that Chinese people do things that make no sense whatsoever. Getting out of the car and back in again would make no sense if there were a fire, no matter what the culture was; and so is senseless also as a drill.
I don't think it was the connotation to me was "makes no sense whatsoever" as much as "for reasons we don't understand". I guess it depends on how tolerant the speaker is of understanding that people do things differently elsewhere for reasons perfectly valid to that culture. (And we do things that they don't understand).
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Old 10-08-2019, 11:28 AM
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Originally Posted by Little Nemo View Post
No, the expression I used to hear was definitely arithmetic. That said, I'm aware there are other versions of the idiom.
Seems like the frequency of the two expressions is similar, although "arithmetic" was used as early as the early 1800s.

Quote:
And when I was young, the idiom was used to say something was difficult. It wasn't used to say somebody had an erection. Which quite frankly doesn't make a lot of sense.
That was just a typical off-kilter joke by Waits. I wasn't saying it was a typical use, just that it was where I first heard it. (However, I wonder if his use of it in 1977 might have contributed to increased frequency in the late 1970s.)

Last edited by Colibri; 10-08-2019 at 11:28 AM.
  #46  
Old 10-08-2019, 12:28 PM
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Originally Posted by Darren Garrison View Post
Never heard "Chinese" to "connote incomprehensibly"--I've always heard that "it is Greek to me." Do you think that is a slur that shouldn't be used?
Computer Scientist Arnold Rosenberg years ago wrote a fun paper collecting several such expression called The Hardest Natural Languages. It's a spin off of proofs of a language/problem being provably harder/easier than another in CS.

In short: Chinese is the hardest in the sense of being directly or indirectly seen as harder by the most number of languages. And there's a loop in one of the graphs.
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Old 10-08-2019, 12:41 PM
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I was all set to post that you're all wrong about "Indian summer", as it's obviously a reference to the days of the British Raj, when one could escape the cool autumn weather by travelling to India, where it would still feel like summer. But if this board has taught me anything, it's to do my research, and the first link I found (from a British newspaper, no less: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/...summer-archive) tells me the phrase was first used in America at least 80 years before British rule in India, and the origin does most likely lie there. However, it does also suggest the term was not necessarily pejorative towards Native Americans, at least at the time.
I can see why somebody who's never run into the term before might think it means "summer in India". But what you've missed is that the term does mean something specific, and it's not at all the meaning you're trying to assign to it. Again, "Indian summer" is a brief warm spell that occurs after the first frost in fall, but before full winter sets in. It's entirely inapplicable to any climate that either doesn't have frost at all, or has winter temperatures involving only occasional frost instead of long periods during which the temperatures rarely rise much above freezing point. I have never heard it used to refer to heading south in the fall; that's just plain not what it means. (The term for that, at least around here, is "snowbird"; though I don't think there's exactly a verb form -- one would say 'they're snowbirds', not 'they're snowbirding'; I don't think I've ever heard somebody say 'snowbirding' as a verb).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Nava View Post
Just reference the approximate date, it's what the feastday references are a shorthand for. AFAIK, nobody* has bothered prepare a chart assigning the precise nomenclature as a function of starting date, total duration and temperature increase (min, max and weighed average).
There is no one approximate date. When I first moved here it could be any time from late September to midNovember. Now I'd say any time from mid October to mid December (as first frost is later than it used to be, and warm weather is likelier later in the fall than it used to be.) And the duration could be anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks. Both date and duration vary considerably from one year to another. They would of course also vary with location; but in most areas there'd still be a lot of variation at any given location.
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Old 10-08-2019, 12:43 PM
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Based on my last visit to Europe - "It's all Hungarian to me." A very different language largely undiluted by Graeco-Roman influences.
I dread to think what the Hungarians may habitually cite, re languages which baffle them...

Quote:
Or, from One Day At A Time -
"Beware of Hungarians bearing gifts."
"Don't you mean Greeks?"
"Greeks, Hungarians... any one of those countries where the men dance together."
I self-confessedly live under a rock -- all that One Day At A Time indicates to me, is an evangelical-Christian inspirational ditty -- with, one would figure, no Hungarian or Greek relevance; but suggesting definite mistrust of men dancing with each other... (The men-dancing-together puzzlement business, for those not in the know, seems pretty ubiquitous worldwide -- I recall from Patrick O'Brian's novels, Jack Aubrey being initially bemused about his friend Stephen, in his native Catalonia, dancing with a bunch of other men -- wondering, "is there something 'not quite the thing' about this chap?")
  #49  
Old 10-08-2019, 05:08 PM
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Sitcom from the eighties with building superintendent as the low-brow joker.
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Old 10-08-2019, 05:28 PM
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Sitcom from the eighties with building superintendent as the low-brow joker.
Ignorance fought (slightly). Thanks !
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