I have red hair. I don’t think it’s all that big of a deal. But for some reason this is a feature that gets brought to my attention a LOT. I mean, I get it, it’s fiery orange hair (and a glorious beard), so subtle it is not. But apparently for a lot of people it is an event.
This has resulted in numerous awkward encounters in my life. For example:
- During a third grade field trip to a retirement home, an old broad from across the room yelled at the top of her lungs “OH MY GAWD LOOK AT HIS HAIR! IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL! WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL I KNEW A BOY WHO HAD HAIR LIKE THAT.” Not sure how graceful you were when you were 9, but rather than a smile and a “Right on” (my favorite phrase had not yet come into my life), I turned beet red and was horrified.
- Women come up to me, oggle my hair, and ask me about it (a lot). To be clear, this is not sexual, they just want to get my exact hair color when dyeing their hair. “I’ve been trying to get that exact color for such a long time.” “Oh, OK. I literally did nothing to get it. Please stop talking to me.”
- The 12-year-olds at the daycare I worked at on college breaks accused me of dyeing my hair, ‘cause when I get my hurr did (cut), my hair is a lighter shade of orange (When the hair is longer it’s thicker, so the light reflects more orange. Same as why white hair looks whi- oh, you don’t care. My mistake).
Point is that as a redhead I’ve dealt with some shit. Now you’ll notice that in that last sentence I used the term “redhead,” not “ginger.” I don’t like the term ginger. Whenever I make that statement, I get chastised for making it (mostly with the phrase “Quit yer bitchin, ginger”). The obvious reason I don’t like it is that it’s often used in a derogatory manner. I guess the closest analogy would be the derogatory association with blondes and stupidity. But I don’t recall South Park doing an entire episode making fun of blondes.
Honestly, though, my biggest gripe with the term “ginger” is that no one seems to know where it comes from, so they’re using it ignorantly. I mean it could be something really bad. How do you know that you’re not basically using something that’s on-par with THAT word (the one no white person can say). I mean, the history of terms labeling groups of people isn’t great, if ya get my drift, and there’s a lot less sensitivity with throwing around “ginger” than others. It might be totally fine to use, but it also might not. So I took it upon myself to research where the term came from, and settle this personal gripe once and for all.
I was surprised at the amount of digging it took to really get to the bottom of this. What I did find is that labeling a person with red hair a “ginger” goes way back. Most posts on the subject relied heavily on the Oxford English Dictionary entry, so because I’m a lazy bastard I’m going to do the same. Let’s put on our history hats and take a journey, shall we (don’t worry, there’s a cock pic included)?
Going back in the years, there’s an 1889 reference to ginger as “A light red or yellow colour, applied to the hair”. There’s an even earlier reference in 1864, when describing Charles Dickens no less, which states he’s a “Mature young gentleman; with..too much ginger in his whiskers”. Not sure what the hell the author’s inferring with the whole “too much” thrown in. Anyways, going back another hundred years, there’s a 1785 reference to a specific type of rooster, called a ginger-pated cock:
(Image credit: http://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/forgotten-foods-4-cock-beer/. Let’s just say I got some VERY different results when I was first doing that image search.)
Then we reach the oldest references listed. They’re from Sir Thomas Elyot and Richard Huloet, from 1538 and 1552, respectively. Tommy and Dick (as they liked to be called when they were out chasing women) compiled early dictionaries, and both had similar references to “ginger”. In Dick’s book Abecedarium Anglo-Latinum (Latin for “Magically Angelo is Latino”), ginger is defined as “Gynger coloure, after a whyte russet, melinus”. Apparently “russet” in that definition has nothing to do with potatoes; it comes from the French term for “reddish.” Go figure.
OK, so clearly “ginger” was used to describe a reddish orange color for a hella long time. But that doesn’t explain why. I mean a ginger root is brownish on the outside, and yellowish on the inside. Some people state it’s because of the flower, but the flower is brilliantly red, clearly NOT reddish-orange.:
The etymology of the word ginger itself only references the root and its shape. So what in the name of Davy Crockett’s going on here? Then I saw it. In looking up images of ginger, there was one where the inside of the ginger is EXACTLY the same color as my hair. I click on it, and it’s something called mango ginger. Looking into “mango ginger” I find the following entry from a cooking thesaurus:
Mango ginger* = Yellow ginger = Indian ginger = Turmeric
HOLY SHIT. So the whole reason I’m called a ginger is because somewhere, sometime back, somebody saw turmeric and thought it was ginger. It’s an honest mistake, they look almost identical from the outside (they’re related plants), but peep the inside of a turmeric root:
(Image credit: http://www.justinwolfer.com/2013/07/raw-turmeric-juice/)
And there it is. Everyone who’s ever called me a ginger is doing so because of a misnomer. Not only are they using a somewhat derogatory term, not only are they being ignorant, they’re not even using the right word! So the next time you see me, don’t bring your “ginger” talk to me. You want to call me something? Call me a Turmey.
*NERD ALERT: Technically mango ginger (Curcuma amada) is a different, but closely related, plant from turmeric (Curcuma longa), with similar properties.