Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

So I just re-watched this great comedy by Tim Minchin, and here are the questions:

  1. How bad/offensive is the g-word really (other than being an anagram of the n-word)?
  2. What are alternatives? Is "redhead" more appropriate?
share|improve this question
2  
In Australia the term "ranga" is becoming more and more common. Short for "orangutan", I think it might be a wee bit more offensive than "ginger". :) –  Matt Hamilton Nov 16 '10 at 1:40
    
Off topic a bit - in Scotland its pronounced 'Ginga' - rhymes with 'singer' –  5arx Dec 7 '10 at 21:28
4  
The phenomenon of "Only a X can call another X X" is called N Word Privileges by tv tropes. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 17 '11 at 12:01
1  
Nobody in the US who isn’t an anglophile would recognize ginger as synonymous with redhead(ed). At most, it seems rather weird and silly to us. It certainly doesn’t come across as pejorative or offensive. –  tchrist Apr 3 '11 at 18:08
6  
@tchrist many Americans became familiar with the term ginger via the South Park episode “Ginger Kids”, which originally aired on Nov. 9, 2005. –  nohat Apr 3 '11 at 19:54

10 Answers 10

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It appears to be getting more offensive, and the amount of offence caused seems to be geographic. I think the offence really depends where you are in the world.

After that, it's quite a subjective question.

Here in the UK, it's still quite widely used, but politicians / celebrities that use the phrase (or phrases like it) get criticised. The criticism isn't enough to get someone fired, but an apology is probably needed.

See the recent news article about Harriet Harman calling someone a ginger rodent.

BTW, there's also a fair bit of pushback against how offensive the use of ginger is in comparison to other racial slurs. There's no history of slavery associated with red hair, and this fact is increasingly mentioned in conversations about "ginger".

I don't think this gets to the root (ha) of the issue here in the UK though. Ginger hair is associated with the underclasses. If that association gets stronger, then maybe the word will be seen as being more offensive.

I think the best I can give you is "We'll see".

share|improve this answer
19  
I think it's worth noting that this is pretty much restricted to the UK. In the US, the first thing that springs to mind upon hearing the word "ginger" is the spice (mmm... gingersnaps...). The "redhead" meaning is pretty far down the list, and the concept that this could somehow be derogatory is a bit, um, alien. –  Marthaª Nov 15 '10 at 15:02
10  
I'll second Martha's point, and note that the only time I've heard the term ginger used to refer to a redhead in the US was in the show SouthPark. All other occurrences have been UK-based people/shows. –  Dusty Nov 15 '10 at 15:07
6  
Perhaps I don't get out enough, but this is the first time I have ever encountered the suggestion that there might be anything derogatory about the word 'ginger' in any context. I am in the UK. –  Colin Fine Nov 16 '10 at 9:54
    
As a "ginger" UK person. There is a bit of an issue with it, but then there always has been, it goes back centuries if not millennia. Last bastion of acceptable racism. –  Orbling Dec 7 '10 at 22:14
4  
@ShreevatsaR: In the UK, the majority of the redheads descend from the Picts and the Danes I believe, so that would constitute hereditary inheritance of a physical attribute. It is as much a race as "black" is (as opposed to African-origin), that is readily accepted as such. Prejudice against a genetically inherited feature at any rate. –  Orbling Dec 8 '10 at 12:39

I would guess that 'ginger' is about offensive as 'blonde' and for all the same reasons and in the same contexts. However, I'd further guess that there was a slight uptick in offensiveness when ginger started to be used as the first half of the rhyming-slang phrase 'ginger beer' to mean 'queer' which I first noticed in the late seventies.

share|improve this answer

Thanks for the question, I think it's a good one. Here's what I think:

  1. Alternatives: "Redhead" is right, I think - it seems to be the analogue of "blonde" or "brunette". What you'd be looking for is a straightforward descriptive term, and that would be it. A term like "ranga" obviously has a large (derogatory) evaluative (value judgment) flavour to it: "you've got red hair, and that's a bad thing"; which is obviously the analogue of "you've got black skin, and that's a bad thing."

  2. If you follow such an analysis then there is still a case for considering "ginger" to have a strong evaluative flavour. The usage I'm familiar with is "he/she is a ginger" and almost never "he/she has ginger hair." So the implication is a conceptual reduction of the person to "a ginger" rather than someone "with ginger hair". It says "what you are is a ginger." Like saying someone is "a black", and defining what they are by the colour of their skin. Of course, on the same analysis, "ranga" is a terrible word - which is indeed common currency here in Australia (like "bunga", for the indigenous).

But certainly, context is important. As someone mentioned, the history of oppression of darker skinned races makes discriminating along those lines much more severe than discrimination along the lines of hair colour. Still, the analogy between the two is pretty significant. I would certainly never use the word...

share|improve this answer
2  
+1 Very good point on the discrepancy between stating a feature and becoming that feature. –  Orbling Dec 9 '10 at 2:51

I know it has been mentioned earlier here, but in the US people really do not use the word "ginger" to describe a person with red hair; that word only became known to Americans because of Harry Potter so it is fairly recent (Trey Parker and Matt Stone ruthlessly capitalized upon it in South Park, but it was around before that thanks to Rowling's books: they did not edit it in the US edition.) More commonly on this side of the pond you'd hear the phrase "carrot top" or ”Titian haired” to describe a redhead, and neither are pejorative.

Another favorite American term is ”firecrotch”, but this term subscribes more to an old cultural belief that redheads are sexy, wild, and vivacious (you'd say it to your lover to flirt or talk dirty; whatever else it should NEVER be directed at someone else's mate lest said mate try to rip you to shreds.) For decades, in stark contrast to the UK stigma, the smoking hot redhead has been a staple of American movies, comics, and cartoon for generations. Jessica Rabbit, Christina Hendricks, Poison Ivy, Rita Hayworth, Ariel the Mermaid, Nicole Kidman: they are proof Americans worship fiery locks (Jessica Rabbit's sizzling rendition of Why Don't You Do Right? launched many a young American lad into puberty and 20 years later their adult selves still peek at it, drooling.) Several Hollywood actresses have payed thousands of dollars to get that coppery cascade of curls, among them Amy Adams and Emma Stone, and lately the boys have been getting in on the action: one of the sexiest men in Hollywood right now is Damian Lewis, who women swoon over.

share|improve this answer

Is it offensive to call a redhead a “ginger”?

Yes, quite possibly, but the offensive word isn't ginger, it's a.

If you say He's ginger. you're describing a distinctive physical feature. Useful if you want to recognise him on your blind date.

If you say He's a ginger. you're suggesting that his gingerness is his most important quality. This is rarely helpful and, in light of the recent spate of gingers-have-no-friends jokes, best avoided.

If you say He's a “ginger”. with quotes around the word ginger ... well ... that's just off the scale! ;-)

Of course, context is everything:

  • For our April issue, I think we should use the ginger for the front cover and the blonde for the centrefold.

OK

  • I thank the ginger delegate for the interesting points he raised about the Child Poverty Action Plan.

facetious

share|improve this answer

So I just re-watched this great comedy by Tim Minchin, and here are the questions:

How bad/offensive is the g-word really (other than being an anagram of the n-word)?

The word itself is not offensive. Unlike the N-word or the P-word, which are obviously meant to be abusive.

What are alternatives? Is "redhead" more appropriate?

That would depend on the context. The only people that I have heard say "redhead" have been Americans. I haven't heard it used in the UK, because it's not necessary.

Pitarou and nulliusinverba made important points. The word ginger, can be offensive or not, depending on how it is used. If someone says that someone else is a ginger, that can be offensive because they are saying that the other person is just a ginger person. That they are defined by that. If you say that someone is ginger in the context of referring to them for some reason, there is no reason for that to be offensive. For example, if you are describing someone that you know, to someone else that doesn't know them, and you say that they are ginger, while describing them; there would be nothing wrong with that. It is just a statement of fact.

Basically, offensiveness will depend on how the word is used. There are certain people who make jokes about ginger people and use the word as part of insults directed at them. Just as there are people who do the same about blond people. That doesn't automatically mean that the word is offensive or that an alternative has to be used. That's like saying that the word blond is offensive and that you shouldn't say it. That would be ridiculous.

Also, it's not automatically offensive, because it's also used to describe a particular colour of some small cats. Like these: http://www.myfreewallpapers.net/nature/pages/ginger-cat.shtml

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_l4-QAyhv2Sc/S75Kz9KzABI/AAAAAAAAAEA/Ut8d8gXrq9g/s1600/ginger-kitten.jpg

share|improve this answer
    
All the ginger cats I have ever met have been enormous. Just saying. –  Marthaª Jun 4 '12 at 18:34
    
They're great. Just for you Martha, there's a small one in the second link. –  Tristan Jun 5 '12 at 13:12
    
That's a kitten, not a cat. –  Marthaª Jun 5 '12 at 19:48
    
Does it make difference? They are still the same kind of animal. –  Tristan Jun 5 '12 at 22:06
    
I guess I need to spell things out? You said ginger can be used "to describe a particular colour of some small cats" (emphasis mine). I noted that every ginger cat I've ever met has been enormous - in other words, "small ginger cat" is an oxymoron. However, all cats, even ginger ones, start out as small kittens, so your picture of an orange kitten is cute but irrelevant. –  Marthaª Jun 6 '12 at 16:43

Yes, use of the term ginger is offensive. As a natural redhead, I am highly offended at the use of the word ginger, freck (referring to freckles), red, carrot top, ranga or any other term that people may come up with to refer to us. Verbal abuse is never ok....

share|improve this answer
9  
You're perhaps overstating the case: there are vast numbers of English speakers for whom the concept that ginger could be considered offensive is perplexing at best. You could improve this answer by stating where you live, in what contexts you have encountered clearly-offensive uses of this term, and how widespread that offensive perception is or was in those contexts. –  Marthaª Jan 1 '12 at 19:39

For me at least, I find 'ranga' extremely offensive because the only reason anyone would ever call someone a 'ranga' in the first place is if they intend to be offensive. 'Ginger' on the other hand only bothers my mum and I when people cleverly decide to spruce it up with unseemly post-additives.

share|improve this answer

When I was in the reserves ten or so years ago, "Gingers" where about the only group that it was 'okay' to abuse after sexism and racism were (quite rightly) being stamped out. Not that it was really okay to pick on the redheads...

The thing is - any word can be used in a pejorative sense, and will eventually become offensive (another example - we now have SCOSA, because the word "spastic" went from being descriptive to pejorative to offensive).

share|improve this answer

In Australia, they're sometimes called bluey in an ironic fashion.

However, I've only heard Julia Gillard referred to as a ranga, not as a bluey. Maybe bluey is only used on blokes and not on sheilas.

share|improve this answer

protected by RegDwigнt Jun 5 '12 at 9:48

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.