My son is Cherokee & uses this term & I was concerned if that is a proper term. I thought it originated because the US government historically gave land & such to tribes, then took it back when they found oil or something of value on the land.

  • My understanding is that it's the result of cultural misunderstandings in the Americas and should be considered at least modestly "politically incorrect". Supposedly it came from Native Americans offering a "gift" and then asking for it to be returned at a later date. The Europeans receiving the "gift" did not understand that such "gifts" were considered to be loans in Native American culture, and hence the subsequent request for the item's return led to bad feelings.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 3, 2018 at 17:18
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not about language. Political correctness is an issue of culture, not language. Aug 3, 2018 at 17:50
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    My understanding of 'political correctness' is that it has a lot to do with how language is used.
    – S Conroy
    Aug 3, 2018 at 18:39
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    It could very well be that to Native Americans, it's totally OK to use such terms, on par with the N-word for African-Americans. But for people not Native American, it is is disparaging towards Native Americans and impolite and probably should not be used.
    – Mitch
    Aug 3, 2018 at 19:01
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    I would like to keep this question open on historical grounds, no matter how distasteful it might seem. Aug 4, 2018 at 0:49

4 Answers 4


I am going to explain this as the grandson of Crow and Onondaga people.

Indian giver

This is offensive. We do not appreciate this usage. I don't care where it comes from.

It has been used pejoratively since at least when I was exposed to it in the 60s. We used to respond to it as "...you mean white-man giver." as it was always the white government that took our lands...


I've never heard this phrase before (I don't live in the US), so have no instinct on the political correctness of its everyday usage. When the previous commenter mentioned Carlyle I decided to do a google. (I came across Thomas Carlyle when cotranslating some John Stuart Mill texts into German and he (Carlyle) is certainly not 'politically correct'.)

In any case there's an entry at Wikipedia.

"Indian giver" is an American expression, used to describe a person who gives a "gift" and later wants it back, or who expects something of equivalent worth in return for the item.

Overall the article seems to suggest that it could cause offence. David Wilton claims the phrase is based on a misunderstanding where the native Americans thought they were trading, while the Europeans thought the native Americans were giving them a present. Thus -- and this is my subjective understanding -- the meaning 'to give a present and expect something in exchange' would be the European perspective on what happened.

Wiki also mentions that the meaning may have changed over time.


The phrase was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, who characterized an Indian gift as "a present for which an equivalent return is expected,"[4][5] which suggests that the phrase originally referred to a simple exchange of gifts. In 1860, however, in John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms, Bartlett said the phrase was being used by children in New York to mean "one who gives a present and then takes it back."[6]

As recently as 1979, the phrase was used in mainstream media publications,[7] but in the 1997 book The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, writer and editor Philip H. Herbst says that although the phrase is often used innocently by children, it may be interpreted as offensive,[8] and The Copyeditor's Handbook (1999) describes it as objectionable.[9]

  • 3
    This is a well-researched answer, but it may well just present opinions of those authors (though I agree with them mostly). For someone who lives in the US, I can tell you that it is about as offensive as 'welsh on a deal' or 'jew down a price'. If those don't bother you or your interlocutors, then go wild with 'indian giver' (I'm saying that it's terrible, and most would be scandalized).
    – Mitch
    Aug 3, 2018 at 18:57
  • @Mitch I have heard and probably said "welch on a deal" a hundred times but I never realized it was associated with Wales. Ignorance is no excuse, so I now apologize for the use of this phrase and hope I will be forgiven.
    – Zan700
    Aug 4, 2018 at 1:30
  • @Zan700 As far as politeness goes, I don't think you can be blamed for not knowing, and forgiveness seems too strong for . We can't all be even superficial scholars of everything. But once informed, then you know. It can be hard to fix a language pattern that is ingrained, but think of it like mishearing someone's name: once notified, an apology, remember, and move on. Hopefully the one who points it out gives the benefit of the doubt as not knowing.
    – Mitch
    Aug 4, 2018 at 16:29

This term has unfavourable connotations in the UK, just so you are aware; 'Indian' here refers more frequently to someone from India, rather than a Native American. Few people are likely to be aware of its original meaning (which is actually a critique of colonialism) and would view it as inherently politically incorrect. I've only ever heard a few people use it here, all 40+ years old, and in every case they were clearly uncomfortable using it in mixed company.

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    I think this explains why the UK has no Indian summer: the weatherman got the memo and passed it along to the weather. :)
    – tchrist
    Aug 3, 2018 at 16:32
  • And no Indian blankets for the winters!
    – lbf
    Aug 3, 2018 at 16:50
  • Bunch of jokers - it is 30c here at the moment! Aug 3, 2018 at 17:46
  • @Inoutguttiwutts Yes, but it’s also the start of August. Nobody complains about getting eighty-sixed at the beginning of August. :)
    – tchrist
    Aug 4, 2018 at 1:32
  • It was 47C here a couple days ago only 43 today.
    – Jim
    Aug 4, 2018 at 4:28

Indian giver etymonline

More than 500 modern phrases include Indian, most of them U.S. and most impugning honesty or intelligence, such as Indian gift. [most?]

An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for >which an equivalent return is expected. [Thomas Hutchinson, "History of Massachusetts Bay," 1765]

Hence Indian giver "one who gives a gift and then asks for it back" (1848)

Your tag asks for etymology ... your title asks for opinion. My opinion: The term is used in AmE and when in context there is no PC issue.

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    "...when in context there is no PC issue." In which contexts would would it actually be politically correct, I am wondering..? Aug 3, 2018 at 16:23
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    While calling something an Indian gift may well give offence, I don't believe the first cited sentence. I've looked at more than 100 compounds of the form “Indian X”, with very few “impugning honesty or intelligence”. X includes apple, ball, balm, barn, bean, blanket, bureau, chickweed, chocolate, corn, country, cress, cup, currant, fighter, file, fort, ginger, ladder, lettuce, mound, paint, paintbrush, path, peach, pear, pipe, poke, pony, potato, rice, pudding, shot, strawberry, style, sugar, summer, tobacco, turnip, warrior, wheat. If political correctness is to banish those, now what?
    – tchrist
    Aug 3, 2018 at 16:30
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    @Mitch In what world are those disparaging? None of them is. And would you like Freedom Fries with that, sir?
    – tchrist
    Aug 3, 2018 at 19:18
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    'Indian path' certainly is (it is a misleading path). 'Indian summer' is (it is a false summer (oh but it is a welcome warm period? Tell that to someone who is Indian.). I don't find 'Indian style', 'Indian file', or most of those ones for plants to be disparaging directly. But their existence encourages use of the disparaging ones by analogy, so why not avoid them? How does it hurt you to avoid offense? Sure, you don't intend it, but if it might cause offense, why not avoid it? 'German measles' is purely descriptive, right? Why not use something else if it exists?
    – Mitch
    Aug 3, 2018 at 19:26
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    @Mitch The issue isn’t placing some red line along a continuum between something being “only” a little disparaging and being greatly disparaging. Rather, it’s this conceit that any mention of “Indian anything is a per-se act of disparagement—to be extirpated from our language tout de suite. Using it to mean something bad is of course hurtful and we shouldn’t do so. But railing about innocent uses is wrong: you cannot stop folks from saying Indian corn or Indian paintbrush, or kids from playing Cowboys & Indians. Nor can you rename the state of Indiana. You should not try.
    – tchrist
    Aug 4, 2018 at 2:07