Today I used the AmE expression (treated like) a red-headed stepchild, meaning someone or something that isn't treated on a par with others in their group--through no fault of their own. The person I said it to could figure out what it meant, although he hadn't known it before. But the result is that it got me thinking about redheads.

In these parts, red hair, or more particularly light red hair, is called ginger. This isn't unknown in America, but it's not at all as common as it is in the UK, home of Ginger Spice. It can also refer to reddish-colo(u)red fur on an animal, especially a cat. Referring to people or animals, it can be used in various ways:
as an adjective, referring to the colo(u)r:
Her hair is ginger
as an adjective meaning 'having red hair/fur':
He is ginger
or as a noun, meaning 'a person/animal with red hair':
That Chris Evans is a ginger – nuff said! --BKAW

As you can probably tell from the last example, calling someone a ginger is not the most polite way to describe a person's hair colo(u)r. This follows from the general principle that refering to people using adjectives-turned-into-nouns is a bit rude as it reduces them to a single property. Compare, for example He is gay and He is a gay.

It's my impression that it's tougher to be a redhead, especially a redheaded man, in the UK than in the US (armies of women who henna over their gr{a/e}y notwithstanding). The first Chris Evans quote is indicative, but here's another, followed by a charmingly clueless query from a non-British commenter on a Dr Who forum:
3twelve: ... Chris Evans is a ginger tosser - whose only real fame was due to the Big Breakfast - a uk tv show that he was one of the first presenters on.
wpbinder: What the heck is a ginger tosser?I'm having great fun imagining wpbinder imagining that the worst thing in BrE is to accuse someone of throwing Asian root-based spices around. But no, 3twelve is accusing Evans of being a red-headed onanist. Now, it's one thing to call Evans a tosser (AmE equivalent might be prick--Americans don't use onanistic insults quite as much, and jerk isn't strong enough), but no one seems to call him one without making reference to his hair colo(u)r. Then again, it's hard to think of Americans to compare him to. Ron Howard is more likely to be mocked for not having any hair these days, and Carrot Top, well, mocks himself. Danny Bonaduce, anyone?

You could throw red-headed stepchild back at me as proof that Americans are tough on redheads but (a) it's a pretty old-fashioned-sounding saying that refers to an old-fashioned attitude, and (b) there have been recent reports (on the American Dialect Society e-mail list) of people saying left-handed stepchild instead--presumably because it's easier to understand lefties as more neglected than redheads.

Redheaded people (or those who are attracted to them) are also called ginger-nuts in BrE. A ginger-nut is a hard ginger biscuit. Strangely, these have no nuts. They are fairly comparable to American ginger snaps (I've not seen a British ginger snap, so I can't say what those are like, though the OED seems to feel that they're different from ginger-nuts). Ginger snap can be used in AmE to refer to (as the OED puts it): "a hot-tempered person, esp. one with carroty hair". Now, that has me imagining a screeching baby in a highchair with vegetable puree everywhere. Perhaps I'm just too literal-minded.


  1. Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger" just wouldn't sound the same as "Ginger Stranger", would it?

    And what about the old saying I used to hear as a kid: "I'd rather be dead than GINGER in the head"?

    By the way, the above-mentioned Mr. Nelson's first name can be a topic all its own here, can't it...if it hasn't been discussed already!



  2. I was 47 years old before I heard the expression "red-headed stepchild" - and then, quite suddenly, it seemed to be everywhere (I'm 52 now) - leaving me to wonder what famous person had suddenly popularized the phrase. And I'd never heard "ginger" applied to anyone but a cat - unless Ginger on Gilligan's Island counts. I saw that in black&white when it was actually on, and never thought of her as a red-head, though she clearly is. "Ginger" to me only suggested that her name was Virginia...

  3. I really like the phrase 'like a red-headed stepchild', I think I'm going to use it in less-polite conversation. I was also going to say about 'a gay' - Daffyd (the only gay in the village) in Little Britain refers to himself as such and a lot of my gay friends have taken it on - reclaiming the insult if you like - like what happened with 'queer'.

    I have red head genes (I have a light auburn kinda hair, but I dye it dark red) and so does Husband, so I'm expecting a ginger child. Will be beautiful with our pale skin :)

  4. I have to say I was horribly persecuted during my childhood for having red hair, by my peers. Adults were usually kind, even envious, and I thought they were nuts. (Ginger-nuts?)

    My left-handed brother had it much, much easier.

    I'm pretty tough now, though.

  5. "That Chris Evans is a ginger"

    In this case the word ginger might be pronounced to rhyme with singer.

    Also, I'm sure I've heard TV/film Americans refer to people as "jerk off" in the same way we Brits might use "tosser" or "wanker".

    So the translation might be "red-headed jerk off"?

    He really is one too. ;)

  6. So that's 'ginger' with a /g/ at the start, is it mister barnoid? Also there are the pretty widely-used abbreviations, 'ging' (rhymes with 'sing', with hard initial 'g'), and 'ginge' (rhymes with 'singe'). There does seem to be a slight obsession thing going on with the red-headed in this country (Britain, that is). I think red hair's lovely, but then, I'm not red-headed so I never had to suffer the taunts as a child!

    re. tossers and wankers: though a tosser and a wanker are literally the same thing, I think (in my idiolect at any rate) there is a subtle difference between the types of people to whom each would apply. A wanker is just totally contemptible in every way, but calling someone a tosser is maybe a bit more jocular and a bit less harsh. Not sure though.

  7. > And I'd never heard "ginger" applied to anyone but a cat

    But not to forget Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire's co-star and dancing partner. I'd only ever seen her in black and white, but I have just done a quick Google Images search, and her hair, when she was in her prime, was the most gorgeous colour.

  8. Some replies:

    KathyF: I suppose the test is how ed children are treated today in the two countries. Better Half also believes that it's tougher for s in England, but neither of us are gingers ourselves. We discussed the possibility that this could historically have to do with discrimination against Irish and Scots, and it seemed to us like a decent theory...

    Barnoid: So you think the noun ginger at least in that context is a combination of ginger and minger (BrE slang for an ugly person)? I have never heard it pronounced that way myself, but BH has taken me to task for not discussing ginger minger as a phrase in its own right. (BH pronounces ginger in the normal way in that phrase.)

    Ally: I think your explanation of tosser versus wanker is spot-on. Cheers!

  9. I had forgotten about this difference until it came up again in the most recent season/series of Doctor Who, and in that context the Doctor actually wanted to be ginger. For some reason I personally have a hard time remembering that ginger is supposed to be reddish; somewhere along the line I picked up a totally inappropriate color-association for the word that makes it really hard for me to automatically translate it properly.

    On a related note, do the British Harry Potters refer to the Weasleys as all being ginger? As much as I'd much prefer to read the unedited original I have yet to justify buying two copies of the books...

  10. KathyF: I rethought my response in bed last night--and think that the true test isn't how children are treated, since children are mocked for just about anything, but whether people are still mocked for being redheaded in adulthood.

    Lucy: I'm not at home with Harry Potter at the moment (Better Half does have both US and UK versions of some books), but I found this website that lists 'translations' and that isn't in it. See this.

  11. It hadn't previously occurred to me that ginger (used as a noun and pronounced to rhyme with 'singer' starting with a hard 'g') was derived from minger. I remember it being applied to red-headed people when I was at school (early 90s) before I'd heard the word minger used. Perhaps there's a regional element, I'm a Southerner (UK).

  12. Yes if you really want to be insulting it's "ging -er"
    to rhyme with "minger". There are lots of red tops up here north of the border, but they still get a hard time.

    I just got the freckles and not the red hair, but that was hard enough when growing up. I think there's a website devoted to redheads out there somewhere.

  13. I've just spent the evening with several Scottish people who inform me that ginger is also used in Glasgow to refer to any kind of fizzy drink.

  14. Hm, is it my browser that's censoring me, or something more nefarious? I have replaced mastur-words with onan-words in the post, as the m-words went missing.

  15. My British mum refers to orange cats, and only cats, not dogs or people, as "marmelade" rather than ginger. I don't know if this is a regional UK term (she's from Yorkshire) but it sure stumped my American mother-in-law the other day when I said I saw a beautiful marmelade cat sleeping on a front stoop. I can picture what she envisioned!

  16. Oi! What about ginger moggies?

  17. Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. "Red-Headed Stepchild":

    Alt.Eng at Google:

    I'm guessing "red-headed child" or "red-headed baby" might be equivalent to "red-headed stepchild." Whatever the origin of the last, I've run across the terms in African-American slang, to refer to a mulato or mixed-race child with reddish hair. I don't think abuse is always implied, but the child may be singled out as unusual, or hot-headed, or have some association with the devil (white devil, more likely), or as not being full-blooded. The stigma of possibly being a child of prostitution might follow the child, and the concept of miscegenation, either in the era of slavery or contemporarily, clouds the subject.

    Malcolm X was red-headed, light-skinned and freckled. His knickname was "Detroit Red" when he was involved in crime and hustling in his younger days. One biographical source says that "red headed black men to the superstitious were literally sons of the devil, quick tempered and capable of cruel violence." White racist literature seems to touch on this as well, more to the point of slyly emphasizing race-mixing in Malcolm X's background in an ironic way.

    I first heard this phrase from some African American friends in the mid-1960s, with the general meaning of a person who is part of a group in one way (the stepchild element) and who is excluded for no reason having to do with the person's behavior (the red-headed part).

    In other words, applied to a person who is persecuted for no reason.

  18. Googling the term 'ginger' with 'red' and 'hair' your website emediately came up.
    In Breda, the Netherlands, we had a RedHeadDay (RoodHarigenDag) last sept. 2nd. More than 800 ginger women (and a few men) gathered in Breda's citycentre to have a meeting and find out what it was like to be 'one-of-many' in stead of the 1-2% of the entire population.

    The result of last Sunday was broadcasted around NL, and newspapers' frontpage headline. More photos and information will be placed on but if you take an average newspaper such as the local there's photoalbums with photos etc. (fotoalbum roodharigen)

    My own project was Red-On-Red (translated directly from the Dutch frase Rood-Op-Rood) which is shown here:
    I hope one day I can do a same series of artwork in UK...

  19. I'm quite surprised that no one has pointed out that ginger can also mean homosexual. It comes from rhyming slang: ginger beer = queer.

    The dictionary of English slang
    has this as the primary meaning of ginger.

  20. I've never heard the phrase "red-headed (step)child", but it seems obvious to me that it's a slightly veiled euphemism for "bastard".

    In a family with no redheads, the sudden appearance of a red-haired baby would suggest, shall we say, an external addition to the gene pool. The father might start checking the hair colour of the milkman, postman, neighbours, etc.

  21. My father drove a bread truck in Detroit from the 50s to the 70s. (We are white). When I was a child (in the 60s), he quoted to me the expression, "better dead than to have a red head" as something the black kids he met would say.

  22. Anonymous Liz

    I've run across the terms in African-American slang, to refer to a mulato or mixed-race child with reddish hair.

    A lot of blues singers were called Red. Some of them, at least, were red-haired albinos. They included: Tampa Red, Speckled Red, Red Nelson, Piano Red, Bull City Red.

    There was also a fictitious character addressed in a very popular blues song of the forties Oh Red!

  23. Lynne

    I've not seen a British ginger snap, so I can't say what those are like, though the OED seems to feel that they're different from ginger-nuts.

    All the pictures of ginger nuts and ginger snaps found online look identical. The OED describes ginger snaps as thin. I wonder whether it's an obsolete term for what we now call brandy snaps, which are certainly thin, and can taste a bit like ginger nuts.

    Ginger biscuits can be made with or without flour. A solitary poster claims that this is the difference between nuts and snaps.

  24. I shall re-ask the question here: why does "ginger" mean "red hair", when ginger (at least the kind commonly used in cooking) is light brown on the outside and pale yellow on the inside?

    Some internet research has established that:

    * the word "ginger" to mean "red" goes back to at least 1785 (Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, referring to the birds participating in cock-fighting).

    * the flower of the red ginger plant, native to Malaysia, is red

    Still, I have yet to see a satisfactory explanation. Does anyone have any ideas?

  25. I've always assumed it was the colo(u)r of the flower (and I really thought this discussion was in here somewhere, but I guess it's not!).

  26. The OED says 'colour of ginger' which seems a bit strange. It also says 'slang or dialectal', which I find very strange.

    vp speaks of the colour of ginger when used in cooking. OK, the raw root is too bright a yellow, but what about processed ginger and foodstuffs made with ginger? Ginger marmalade, perhaps, or ginger ale? Or what about a combination both: foodstuffs made with crystallised ginger?

  27. I hope the term ginger isn't derogatory. I love it, and I adopted a beautiful red-headed boy, whose hair is lightening. He is now three, and I would call his hair strawberry blonde here in the States. But I love to call him my little ginger snap. I love red hair so much that I just dyed my hair for the first time, a bit darker red. His birth mother only supplied his ancestry as Armenian, but I am willing to guess that he has some Scottish, Irish, or Scandinavian in him too. I have some Scottish too, but my hair was a mousy brown until recently. I first heard the term ginger from Craig Ferguson, so it could have a bit of nastiness in it, but I hope not. I think it's a cute description for beautiful redheads.

  28. Around 2018, a coworker who came from Atlantic City, New Jersey, said that someone had ginger hair. I spent a lot of my life in New Jersey, but could not recall anyone using "ginger" that way, though I knew what it meant. I asked some friends and family in New Jersey; they might refer to a ginger cat but not a person with ginger hair. I was pleased that some local usage seems to persist in a state as small as New Jersey.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)