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From the casual research I've done, it's assumed to be offensive (like "gyp" for Gypsies), but I've not found anything definitive. I'm also curious when it first entered the language with this meaning and why.

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4 Answers

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It is thought to have derived from Welsh and is often considered derogatory. Use renege or other wording instead.

Online Etymology Dictionary

Etymonline.com says of welch:

1857, racing slang, "to refuse or avoid payment of money laid as a bet," probably a disparaging use of the national name Welsh.

And of Welsh:

Among the English, Welsh was used disparagingly of inferior or substitute things, hence Welsh rabbit (1725), also perverted by folk-etymology as Welsh rarebit (1785).

Oxford English Dictionary

The OED says of the verb welsh or welch:

Origin uncertain; perhaps < Welsh adj., on account of alleged dishonesty of Welsh people (see note). Earlier currency is probably implied by welsher n.1, welshing n., and welshing adj.

Sometimes considered offensive in view of the conjectured connection with Welsh people.

Their first quotation meaning to renege on a betting debt is from an 1860 Racing Times:

The plaintiff denied that he had ever..‘welched’ a man named Williams at Worcester in 1854.

Their first quotation of noun welsher, a bookmaker who refuses to pay, is from an 1852 Racing Times:

One of the above fraternity [sc. betting impostors] was observed following his calling, by a former victim... The ‘Welsher’ sneaked off to another corner of the field.

Their first for noun welshing is from an 1854 Era:

The subterfuge and welching of the betting enclosure.

BBC

But it is still used, often by politicians, including the BBC itself. Occasionally they apologise. The BBC reported in February 2012 that Education secretary Michael Gove apologised for saying he'd "welshed on the deal" in the House of Commons, and 'Bill Clinton apologised to Republicans in 1995 for calling them "Welshers"'.

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Excellent answer, this is what I was looking for. The bonus was learning that Welsh Rarebit came from Welsh Rabbit, itself a disparaging term. –  Jim Nelson Jun 30 '12 at 4:10
    
But remember to pronounce renege with /ɛ/ (as in beg) and not /ɪ/ (as in big). Otherwise a different ethnic group might be offended. (The pronunciation with /ɪ/ is a historical variant which has nothing to do with the word n****r, but it should be avoided anyway.) –  Peter Shor May 8 '13 at 22:38
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Other sources I found looking up the word suggest that English bookies with a losing book might flee across the border to Wales, thus "welshing" on their bets.

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What are these sources? –  Hugo Sep 5 '13 at 6:40
    
This sounds like one of those urban legend etymologies. –  siride Sep 5 '13 at 7:25
    
This seems unlikely as the English/Welsh border consists of a sign by the side of the road in most places. It's not like heading for Mexico. –  TheMathemagician Mar 21 at 11:10
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This is in AJP Taylor's excellent school history books. He notes that the very first man to "Plead the Gaming Act" and refuse to pay a bet because betting had been made illegal, was Mr Welch, hence refusing to pay became known as Welching on a bet.

Nothing whatsoever to do with the differently spelt Welsh.

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What's Mr. Welch's full name, and when did he plead the Gaming Act of 1845? Your search - "plead the gaming act" welch - did not match any documents. Surely you have a non-anecdotal reference? –  Bradd Szonye May 8 '13 at 22:08
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The others answers contradict you. They also cite sources. –  KitFox May 9 '13 at 0:02
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It was intended as derogatory, you couldn't trust a medieval Welshman.

The medieval clergyman Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223, of mixed Norman and Welsh descent) didn't like them very much:

Faults in the Welsh Character

The inconstancy and instability of the Welsh; and their failure to keep their word or carry out their promises.

A formal oath never binds them. They have no respect for their plighted word, and truth means nothing to them. They are so accustomed to breaking a promise, held sacrosanct by other nations, that they will stretched out their hand, as the custom is, and with this gesture swear an oath about nearly everything they say, not only in serious and important matters but on every trifling occasion.

They live on plunder and have no regard for the ties of peace and friendship.

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-1. This says that people have been rude about the Welsh for a long time. It says nothing whatever about whether the word welsh is connected with this. –  Colin Fine May 9 '13 at 0:03
    
@ColinFine - true, I was just pointing out that "welsh" once had a negative sense, in the same way that Irish does now in BE or polish in AE –  mgb May 9 '13 at 3:45
    
Actually, you have not even shown that, since Giraldus wrote in Latin, so if this were about a word (which it isn't) it would be about the word cambrenses or something similar. It tells us little or nothing about the connotations of the English adjective Welsh, and still less about whether the English verb welch or welsh is connected with that adjective. –  Colin Fine May 10 '13 at 16:48
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