The Grammarphobia Blog

Who’s the “Indian giver”?

Q: An old history professor of mine once said American Indians were erroneously offended by the term “Indian giver.” He said the term applied not to Indians, but to the white government that granted Indians territory only to break its word and take the land back. My professor is now dead and I have no idea where he learned this. Do you know?

A: None of the sources I’ve checked support your old professor’s definition of “Indian giver”; unfortunately, all I find is the offensive meaning that Native Americans have every right to resent.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the related phrase “Indian gift” to Massachusetts in 1765, when it was defined as “signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.”

The OED‘s earliest citation for “Indian giver” is John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1860): “Indian giver. When an Indian gives any thing, he expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned.”

But a posting on the Linguist List, a forum for linguists, offers this 1848 entry from a previous edition of Bartlett’s dictionary: “INDIAN GIVER. When an Indian gives anything, he expects an equivalent in return, or that the same thing may be given back to him. This term is applied by children in New York and the vicinity to a child who, after having given away a thing, wishes to have it back again.”

An article in the New-York Mirror in June 1838 also defined “Indian giver” as meaning “One who gives a present and demands it back again.”

Too bad. I like your professor’s definition better.

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