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When I was a young lad, a Rag-and-Bone man who was a regular visitor to our area used to recite a short ditty to me that began so:

Ginger for luck ginger for pluck ginger is never afraid...

It went on for a few more lines.

I never heard this again and can not find any reference to it anywhere. Has anyone else ever heard it or know of it? This would have been in the early '50s, and I grew up in the UK. I also have red hair (or had: it is white now).

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    Which English-speaking continent or country did you grow up in? I've found some references in Australian newspapers from around 1930.
    – shoover
    Jan 28, 2019 at 1:00

3 Answers 3

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The ditty you quoted did not appear in my search results. However, the "ginger for pluck" saying seems to have been commonplace by 1859, when the first print use I could uncover appears on 26 Oct in The Standard (London, Greater London, England; paywalled, emphasis mine):

One of the females, named Hannah Hore, called after him "Ginger for pluck," ....

Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary, v. 2 (1900), in the entry defining 'ginger' as a "light red or yellow colour", quotes "ginger for pluck" and sources his quote of the saying to J. Ellett Brogden's 1866 Provincial Words and Expressions Current in Lincolnshire (London). I was unable to find the Brogden work online.

J.S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, in the 1893 Slang and its Analogues Past and Present note "Whence the phrase (venery) 'Black for beauty, GINGER for pluck'" in their entry for 'ginger' in the sense of a "red-haired person".

In the circa 1870 (likely 1873 or 1878) novel Arab Jack, 'ginger for pluck' is described as an "old adage":

...as Nina used to say when she was in her teasing moods that my bright golden locks were ginger, you will find the old adage 'ginger for pluck' is quite true, ....

The adage continues in use through the later decades of the 1800s and into the 1900s, when, by 1917, the happy consonance (I am, or rather was, a ginger myself) of luck and pluck is exploited in a song titled "Ginger", by Bernard Moore:

"Ginger for pluck," we told him, an' squeezed him in the boat;
"Ginger for luck," he answered, "'twas my hair keeped me afloat."

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  • The link for ""Ginger", by Bernard Moore:" is broken. A search for "Ginger", by Bernard Moore results in pictures of ginger jars by the potter Bernard Moore.
    – Greybeard
    Dec 2, 2023 at 12:16
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    @Greybeard: I have updated the link, as JEL is now a somewhat sporadic visitor to EL&U.
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 3, 2023 at 5:21
  • Hathitrust has a fully viewable copy of Brogden's 1866 book, but its entry for ginger doesn't include the phrase 'ginger for pluck': "Ginger.—A term applied to a red-haired per[s]ons. Ex. I know ginger has a foul temper." The references that Joseph Wright provides for "ginger for pluck" appear to be to "nwDer.1" ("MS Collection of North-West Derbyshire Words" [n.d.] by T. Hallam) and to "Not.1" ("MS Collection of Nottinghamshire Words" [n.d.] by Thomas A. Hill).
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 3, 2023 at 5:56
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My mother used to say "Ginger for pluck the red headed duck" when referring to a red haired person. This was in the 1960s.

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  • And where was your mother from? Dec 2, 2023 at 10:15
  • New Zealand but her father was English and it may have originated there. I see that saying is also quoted in an Australian obituary.
    – Jan C
    Dec 2, 2023 at 10:17
  • Vale Ginger for pluck the red headed duck. Bravely over coming disability and many hardships she lived a life of courage, kindness and irreverent humour.
    – Jan C
    Dec 2, 2023 at 10:20
  • Above is the Australian obit from 2018.
    – Jan C
    Dec 2, 2023 at 10:21
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    You should edit the extra details into your answer because comments can be deleted. Dec 2, 2023 at 10:53
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I don't know how relevant this is to the question of where "Ginger for luck, ginger for pluck, ginger is never afraid" comes from, but an item in the August 20, 1892, Notes and Queries discusses the origins of throwing gingerbtread (or "gingerbread-nuts") at people for luck:

THE GLADSTONE GINGERBREAD.—In a speech delivered at Acomb, on June 30, Mr. J. Grant Lawson, Conservative candidate for the Thirsk and Malton Division of Yorkshire, thus explained the significance of this gingerbread, which stands a good chance of gaining historic immortality :—

"He regretted the incident at Chester, where Mr. Gladstone was unfortunately injured. It was the custom in Ireland to make gingerbreads, and throw them for luck, as we in England throw rice at marriage times; and he hoped the woman threw the gingerbread-nut at Mr. Gladstone not through anger, but for luck."—Yorkshire Herald, July 1.

"Gingerbread nuts" were evidently biscuits (or in U.S. English, cookies) "which are crunchy on the outside with a slightly chewy texture on the inside," according to Oxford Reference, which also reports that "The element nut presumably refers to the biscuits' smallness and roundness (ginger nuts seem originally to have been smaller than their twentieth-century descendants)."

In fact, gingerbread nut missiles evidently were hurled both in good humor and in ill, as we see from the following two excerpts. First, from Albert Smith, "The Decline of Greenwich Fair," in The Illustrated London News (April 20, 1850):

The drama at Richardson's Theatre is in a declining state as it is everywhere else ; and for the same reason—it does not instruct, and it has ceased to amuse. From the moment that the audience began to throw gingerbread nuts at the Ghost, and ask the spangled usurper after his mother, its doom was fixed ; and so no more need be said about it.

And from "Varieties" in The Leisure Hour (1892):

Mr. Gladstone's Gingerbread Nut. —The editor of the "Pottery Gazette" says: "There is no doubt, to my mind, that the woman who threw the gingerbread nut at Mr. Gladstone did so for 'good luck,' and not from malice. A friend of mine has in his family an old china jug, beautifully decorated, and inscribed with the word 'gingerbread' across it. It was an old Derbyshire custom to make presents of these jugs to your friends on such memorable occasions as weddings and other festivities." We do not know about Derbyshire jugs, but every one, we should have thought, knew that it is as mucvh the custom in Lancashire to throw gingerbread at a popular or loved passer-by, as to throw rice or slippers after a newly wedded pair. Hawarden is near enough to Lancashire for Mr. Gladstone to have known this. A letter from the medical man who knew the unfortunate thrower of the missile has assured us, in a letter in the "Times," with his signature, that the gingerbread nut; was the weapon of zeal, not rage, and the good woman was terribly vexed and annoyed by the accident that ensued.

The [London] Times account of the incident on June 27, 1892 (as cited in "How a Gingerbread Biscuit Took Out the Prime Minister)," however, is neutral as to the attitude of the thrower and only notes that Baron Halkett, riding in the same carriage with Gladstone, "states that he saw a woman raise her hand and throw something with great violence towards Mr Gladstone" and that "the substance thrown ... turned out to be a hard gingerbread nut."

In any case, Gladstone's experience doesn't speak well for the efficacy of "ginger [thrown] for luck."

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