Hey That's Mighty White of You

I’ve been listening to Old Time Radio (mostly comedies from the 30s and 40s) and they use the phrase “That’s mighty white of you” a lot

Is this racial in orgin?

It certainly sounds like it, and I should also like to know the answer to this, because I have heard it and always wondered about it.

I’d always assumed so; the only other WAG that comes to mind is that might have come from the good guys wear white hats/bad guys wear black hats caricature.

WAG Even though the phrase is most often associated with America, I’ll vote for English origin in last century.

samlem’s idea seems sensible enough, but I have only ever seen that phrase when reading U.S. books. Plus,“in the last century” leaves rather a lot of time when the U.S. culture and language was differing from the “English” version. We can but hope that a knowledgeable person will come around soon. Soon! Now! Fast! :slight_smile:

The only hit on Google is a person who says he got in trouble for innocently using the word, looked in a slang dictionary, and found it was used by both Mark Twain(no relation), and Edith Wharton.

If it indeed goes back to Samuel Clemens, that would be significant.

If I recall correctly, in Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Huck uses a line similar to “that’s mighty white of you” to refer to Jim, the escaped slave he travels with. I don’t recall the exact wording, or which chapter contained it.

I’m pretty sure it originated in the U.S., although samclem could be right.

OTOH, there is no question of its racist nature. The expression, as originally spoken, indicated that the recipient of the compliment was acting in the best traditions of the natural nobility of the white race, as opposed to the underhanded and less than honorable attributes of those “less than” white peoples.

For a good number of years, however, it has been an ironic insult with different connotations:

  • the insulted is behaving “as if” he were desirous of being praised for having “white” values
  • the insulted is given a compliment known to be racist in order to point out some less than courteous act he has performed.

You are barking up the wrong tree looking for a racial connotation here. White = good (and black = bad) has a long history in a moral/spiritual sense, not a racial one.

Etymologist John Ciardi, my favorite expert on issues of word origin, does not deal with the phrase “awfully white of you” directly, but does address similar positive phrases using white (and negative ones using black, like “blackguard” and “having a black soul”). He writes:

“… all these idioms evolved at a time when most Europeans were hardly aware of the existance of a black race. Beyond such idioms, early European religions developed an image structure based on night-day/ devil-god/ black-white/ evil-good… No ‘racial digs’ are implicit in such idioms… There is enough intentionally offensive language to object to without finding evil where none is intended.”

Back in the 1960’s, someone gave me a subscription to Forbes Magazine. That was when it had literary content, if my poor old memory serves me well. Ciardi was fascinating to read(he was a columnist). Everything he said was so logical.

I have his books A Browser’s Dictionary and a Second Browser’s Dictionary. I love to read them, but have found that he is quite often wrong. He had the mis-fortune to not have access to some of the wonderful research of the last 20 years. But, boy, could he turn a phrase.

I’m sure the interenet, as well as computers being able to search texts both now and even better in the future, will make the kinds of exercises concerning word searches we do now seem childish.

How wonderful would it be to have all of something as simple as Mark Twain’s complete writings searchable by computer. We could in a nanosecond say conslusively that he did or did not use any part of the phrase “mighty white of you”.

stuyguy, I am well aware that the words white and black have been associated with good and evil far longer than English-speaking people have had a day-to-day consciousness that some people are “white” or “black,” (white feather, white- or lily-livered, etc. notwithstanding) but this specific phrase is racially derived and for the reasons I gave.
From the OED (the 1919 version, which can hardly be considered susceptible to PC):

white a.
4.b. slang or colloq. (by extension from WHITE MAN 3; orig. U.S.) Honourable; square-dealing. Also as adv

white man
2.b. orig. U.S. slang. A man of honourable character such as one associates with a European (as distinguished from a negro): see WHITE a. 4 b

The closest British English equivalent I can think of is “to play the white man”, which means to act fairly or honourably, to play fair. Obviously, this phrase is obsolete now, but it ties in with tomndebb’s explanation.

Random House’s Word of the Day site comes down squarely on both sides of the fence:

I have only heard the phrase used ironically – from one white person to another, indicating that the latter’s recent statements are verging on the “un-P.C.”

In the book and movie The Eiger Sanction a very racist character says this to Clint Eastwood’s character, who is seeing a black woman at the time.

Clint decks him.

I’ll vote for the ironic/racist opinion (after all, everything is hate speech/ racist anyway).

I have only heard the phrase used by white people in reference to another white person. It’s basically “thanks for nothing”.

These days, everything said by “white” people about white, black, nigger, etc. is considered racist.

No such restrictions apply to “black” people.

This is just being PC; don’t say anything that might offend those poor, downtrodden [insert favorate minority] people’s feelings. This PC attitude is more condescending than racist.

Here is the e-text book of Huckleberry Finn

shortened link

[I edited the link to prevent sidescrolling --Chronos]

[Edited by Chronos on 10-23-2000 at 12:50 AM]

I recall my oldest sister using this phrase quite often for a while when we were young, until my mother heard her and put a stop to it. Seems my sister, in her rural Indiana naivete, thought the word was “wide”. Thankfully she learned the truth before she unintentionally said it to someone who would understandably not appreciate it.

Whatever your feeling about the current state of the language, the OP’s question was “Where did it come from?” (particularly in the context of 60-70 year old radio shows). The definitions recorded in the OED at the beginning of the 20th century indicate pretty well that that usage was, indeed, racist. The citations for this use of “white” date back to 1877, and include these two quotes from Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country:

Interesting note cause on those old time radio shows this is exactly how it is always used. You can substitute “thanks for nothing”