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I'd like to know the etymology of the word "ginger" in reference to red-headed people.

In particular, if "ginger" in this context is related to the plant root used in cooking, I'd like to know how the color red became associated with it. I am only familiar with ginger roots that do not possess any red coloring.

A quick google search yields vague and somewhat conflicting results. An authoritative answer with references would be appreciated.

Edit: Although an answer has pointed out a distinction between the term "ginger" and "red-head" in terms of physical features, there is certainly a tendency to see the term applied to people with hair that is any shade of red. I would be interested to trace the usage history of how the word ginger has been applied in that more broad sense.

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Recall that "ginger" is the whole plant; although we call the spice "ginger" commonly now, it's really the gingerroot we use and that we see in daily life. But the ginger plant has green leaves and orange to red flowers. When you see the flowers, the reference to redheads is much more obvious. –  Mark Beadles Jan 14 '13 at 16:40
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Only a ginger can call another ginger 'Ginger'... youtube.com/watch?v=KVN_0qvuhhw –  MT_Head Jan 14 '13 at 17:50
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@MarkBeadles Please expand that into an answer. –  coleopterist Jan 19 '13 at 5:08
    
Related question. –  tchrist Sep 1 at 16:11

5 Answers 5

There is no relation whatsoever to the root/spice of the same name.

The term originates in American television, specifically Gilligan’s Island. In the show there were two single attractive females: “Mary Ann” (a brunette), and “Ginger” (a pale redhead). There was much debate among viewers as to who was the more attractive of the two. Eventually the debates devolved to a simple personal preference: Mary Ann or Ginger? Basically were brunettes or redheads more attractive?

As this was a very popular show at the time of its airing, the debate became a widespread phenomenon. As with most popular trends they take a while to traverse the pond. Syndication of the show and its popularity in America led to eventual reruns broadcast in the U.K.

If you need any evidence simply look up Gilligan’s Island or actress Tina Louise who played Ginger on the show. As brunettes are more plentiful and are considered less exotic, the term Mary Ann never caught on as a generalization for them.

References: I grew up in the States and was around for the discussions/debates.

I will attempt to track down a reference. However, I expect that resources will be scarce at best. As with most trends and slang terms there is no immediate empirical evidence available. Rather, data must be extrapolated from the phenomenon in order to explain it. This is one reason why currently popular terms are not constantly added to dictionaries.

I agree that the character’s name is likely derived from the scarcely used and defunct term. But the 19th century definition is not directly responsible for the current popularity of the term. Most linguistic trends in this day and age are not rooted in origins and dictionary history but rather in popular media. If Jeremy Clarkson, Matt Smith, Snooky, Paris Hilton or simply a cleverly named fictional character present a “new” idea or catch phrase and the public latches onto the term and regurgitates it, the original etymology of the word is not the current source of the term’s popularity.

If someone uses the term based solely upon the character, be it of their own “creation” or via the socially accepted practice of doing so, there is no direct connection to the traditional term.

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If you cited a reliable reference, you would get an upvote from me. –  Alexander Kosubek Sep 12 '12 at 10:22
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How do you reconcile that origin with the 19th-century uses of "ginger" applied to hair cited in the accepted answer? I think the character was named Ginger because of the hair, not that that shade of hair is called "ginger" because of the character. –  Monica Cellio Sep 12 '12 at 15:52
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She's not even particularly early as characters called "ginger" because they are red-headed go. The Biggles books, the Just Wiliam books, The Luck of Ginger Coffey and the Ginger Meggs comics all feature people called Ginger for that reason. The cat in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Ginger and Pickles one may or may not choose to include. –  Jon Hanna Jan 14 '13 at 19:04
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"Ginger" on the TV was named that, because (for decades before hand), "Ginger" was the nickname for a redhead. –  Joe Blow Aug 31 at 14:18

Contrary to most people's experience, ginger root (Zingiber officinale) is not the only ginger plant in existence. The ginger plant of Malaysia, Alpinia purpurata, is a brilliant red:

Alpinia purpurata (Red Ginger) in Malaysia

In the late 18th century and the 19th century the British occupied parts of Malaysia (among other countries), and started coming into regular contact with the Red Ginger. This is the same period during which "ginger" came to mean "red-haired" or "red-plumed" according to the OED citation in Amanda's answer.

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I think your point about the flowers is quite correct. The common ginger Zingiber officinale also can have red flowers. –  Mark Beadles Jan 14 '13 at 16:37
    
This is brilliant information, thanks. Unfortunately we do not know for sure this is the explanation: but it is highly plausible. –  Joe Blow Aug 31 at 14:20
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This also raises the question 'How many people actually had hair this colour when the term was first applied?' –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 31 at 17:40
    
@EdwinAshworth I don't understand; are you suggesting that very red-headed people didn't exist in the 18th century? –  SevenSidedDie Aug 31 at 19:34
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@SevenSidedDie The only people with hair the colour of the Alpinia purpurata shown above were using modern dyes. Try a Google image search to find the colour range of hair normally classed as belonging to 'redheads'. It's a misnomer. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 31 at 21:01

The OED online has this listed as definition 5.B of "ginger":

B. adj.1 dial.

Of hair: Having the colour of ginger. Of a person: Sandy-haired. Of a cock: Having red plumage.

a1825 R. Forby Vocab. E. Anglia (1830) , Ginger, of a pale red colour, particularly applied to hair.

1834 T. Medwin Angler in Wales I. 35, I perceive a fine red or ginger game-cock in the yard.

1886 R. Holland Gloss. Words County of Chester, Ginger, sandy-haired. ‘He's a bit ginger.’

1897 Daily News 10 Sept. 2/6, Complexion and hair brown, moustache ginger.

So, as indicated by "having the color of ginger," someone at some point was quite convinced that the color of ginger was indeed red.

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But sandy-haired is blonde, and blonde is not red-headed. –  tchrist Jul 24 '12 at 20:21
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This is the only answer that cites a reference. Well-done. –  ash Jul 24 '12 at 22:36
    
The color of ginger is indeed red: the flowers of most ginger plants are red. Ginger is the whole plant; the common spice is the ginger root. –  Mark Beadles Jan 14 '13 at 16:36
    
The stem is also tasty, but yes it's the flowers that are red. (Though I did once know someone who explicitly described her hair as "Jamaican ginger cake coloured"). –  Jon Hanna Jan 14 '13 at 19:11
    
This had been the accepted answer, but on further reflection I've decided I'm still not quite satisfied with it. The OED quote above does not distinguish between the competing theories outlined in other highly voted answers. –  kleingordon Feb 4 at 6:04

It simply comes from the colour of ginger. Its skin isn't really plain brown when cleaned up, but more of a yellow-brown-red mix of varying proportions.

Reddish ginger from kathdedon.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/mussels-with-sake-ginger-butter Reddish ginger skin from medicinalmixology.com/ginger-syrup/

Also, ginger and redhead are technically different as they refer to different shades of red. Ginger is more a brownish red/orange. Then there's auburn! Here are two random links outlining the difference. The reason why ginger is used by some to refer to all red-haired people is probably because of the negative connotations of the word in the UK; guilt by association!

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I suppose this could be the answer, but the color still doesn't seem very red to me. It could be hard to show, but do you know of any references that establish this link firmly in early usage? –  kleingordon Jul 24 '12 at 17:10
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Ginger and redhead are technically different as they refer to different shades of red. Ginger is more a brownish red/orange. Then there's auburn! Here are two random links outlining the difference. [And no, I didn't come across anything that substantially link the colour with the rhizome.] –  coleopterist Jul 24 '12 at 17:43
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Interesting. There is certainly a tendency, though, to see the term applied to people with hair that is any shade of red, including bright red. I would be interested to trace the usage history of ginger in that sense. –  kleingordon Jul 24 '12 at 19:17
    
That is very likely due to the negative connotations of ginger in the UK; guilt by association :| –  coleopterist Jul 24 '12 at 19:35
    
Your links don't justify saying that Ginger and Redhead are different: in fact, the Wikipedia reference says: "(colloquial, countable) A person with reddish-brown hair; a redhead." I don't know that there is really a fixed, specific difference since as @kleingordon says, the term ginger is applied to redheads very often. –  Mark Beadles Jan 14 '13 at 16:33

Ginger cake, at least in Northern England, is this colour.

enter image description here

Not far off hair colour. Although the colour is mostly from the treacle (ie molasses), the flavour is ginger.

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Does the color in these cakes (and other similar desserts) really come from the ginger, or from the cinnamon that typically accompanies it? –  kleingordon Jul 24 '12 at 3:08
    
Gingerbread is brown. –  tchrist Jul 24 '12 at 19:25
    
@tchrist but the colour of ginger used to describe redheads is orangey brown. See the shade of orange in ginger snaps –  Mari-Lou A Sep 2 at 13:07
    
or in ginger nut biscuits. –  Mari-Lou A Sep 2 at 13:08

protected by Jason Bourne Jan 19 '13 at 19:21

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