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.

  • 3
    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. Jan 14, 2013 at 16:40
  • Related question.
    – tchrist
    Sep 1, 2014 at 16:11
  • Obligatory Tim Minchin reference: youtu.be/KVN_0qvuhhw
    – Peter K.
    Jun 24, 2016 at 10:19
  • @Mari-LouA - Highly related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/194349/…
    – user66974
    Jun 24, 2016 at 13:08

9 Answers 9


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.

  • 6
    But sandy-haired is blonde, and blonde is not red-headed.
    – tchrist
    Jul 24, 2012 at 20:21
  • 3
    This is the only answer that cites a reference. Well-done.
    – rxmnnxfpvg
    Jul 24, 2012 at 22:36
  • 6
    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. Jan 14, 2013 at 16:36
  • 1
    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, 2013 at 19:11
  • 2
    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. Feb 4, 2014 at 6:04

I am only familiar with ginger roots that do not possess any red coloring.

Contrary to many cooks' experience, ginger root (Zingiber officinale) is not the only ginger plant. The Red Ginger plant of Malaysia, Alpinia purpurata, is a brilliant red:

Alpinia purpurata (Red Ginger) in Malaysia

Circumstantially, it was in the late 18th century and the 19th century, during which ginger came to mean “red-haired” or “red-plumed” according to the OED citation in Amanda's answer, that the British occupied parts of Malaysia (among other countries), and started coming into regular contact with the Red Ginger.

  • 5
    This is brilliant information, thanks. Unfortunately we do not know for sure this is the explanation: but it is highly plausible.
    – Fattie
    Aug 31, 2014 at 14:20
  • 3
    This also raises the question 'How many people actually had hair this colour when the term was first applied?' Aug 31, 2014 at 17:40
  • 3
    @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. Aug 31, 2014 at 21:01
  • 2
    According to Gretchen McCulloch, the word redhead 'started being [used] in the mid-1200s, about a hundred years before English speakers were even talking about oranges, let alone the color. We don't say “orangehead” because when the term was coined, English didn't differentiate between red and orange.' So, according to this, the term 'redhead' appeared by default, not because of truly red hair. From the OED, 'ginger' seems to have been used for less flaming hair from the onset. Sep 2, 2014 at 16:32
  • 3
    The red ginger is a tropical plant, it doesn't really grow well in a British climate, but it can survive indoors. How many British people in 19th C were familiar with its red flowers ? How many actually saw the plant in somebody's home, in a shop or in a market stall? Are there any newspaper articles from that period that mention the colour of the ginger flowers? Is there proof that the British public was familiar with the vibrant red colour of the ginger plant?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 25, 2016 at 6:55

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!

  • 2
    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? Jul 24, 2012 at 17:10
  • 3
    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.] Jul 24, 2012 at 17:43
  • 2
    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. Jul 24, 2012 at 19:17
  • 1
    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. Jan 14, 2013 at 16:33
  • 1
    The photo here clearly makes the point, the OP was making, that ginger is not in the slightest red, not even vaguely red, and has utterly no connection, whatsoever, in any way, to the colour red. A useful photo!
    – Fattie
    Aug 31, 2014 at 14:17

It appears that it was simply the use of the colour of the root of ginger applied to (the lighter shades of) red hair.

Interestingly a very early citation of ginger as a color dates back to the 16th century:

Ginger-color in ginger

  • 1538 ELYOT, melinus, na, num, whyte, russette or a gynger-coloure

  • 1552 HULOET, Gynger coloure, after a whyte russet, melinus.

From : Sir Thomas Elyot as Lexicographer.

Ginger as a colour was originally used mainly to refer to the light red colour of cocks:

From the OED:

  • b. A cock with reddish plumage; also, a red-haired or sandy-haired person.

  • 1785 GROSE Dict. Vulg. Tongue s.v. Ginger-pated, Red cocks are called gingers.

  • 1797 Sporting Mag. IX. 338 In cocking, I suppose you will not find a better breed of gingers.

  • 1857 H. AINSWORTH Spendthrift xvi. 109 Examining the cocks, and betting with each other..this backing a grey, that a ginger.

And from that, to hair:

  • 1865 DICKENS Mut. Fr. I. ii, Mature young gentleman; with..too much ginger in his whiskers.

  • 1889 N.W. Linc. Gloss. (ed. 2), Ginger, a light red or yellow colour, applied to the hair. posted by Rumple at 3:43 PM on February 8, 2008

  • 1885 in Eng. Illustr. Mag. June 605 There is..‘Ginger’, the red-haired, who [etc.].

  • 1
    Of possible interest: Gabriele Stein, Sir Thomas Elyot as Lexicograper (2014) matches the 1552 Huleot quotation noted above ("Gynger coloure, after a whyte russet") with one from Elyot written 14 years earlier: "Melinus, na, num, whyte, russette, or a gynger coloure." Unfortunately, I can't tell what either writer is saying about the color of "gynger coloure."
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 25, 2016 at 9:19
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA: The quotation comes from Richard Huloet, Abecedarium Anglico-Latinum. A Google Books search for that title returns matches for four copies of this dictionary, but none of them are readable online, and Open Library reports that there is "No readable version available." Evidently, OED's entry for ginger cites Huloet's 1552 sentence, but not to Elyot's 1538 precursor.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 25, 2016 at 19:37
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: Actually, one of the Google Books editions of Abecedarium Anglico-Latinum is searchable (in snippet-view format), but it appears that GB's OCR can't make sense of the old-style font that the book is set in and as a result can't find the cited passage.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 25, 2016 at 19:47
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: Wiktionary reports that melinus means (in Latin) "of or pertaining to honey." This leads me to wonder whether Elyot didn't mean that melinus may refer to a color that may be white, russet, or "gynger coloure," but then Huloet mangled Elyot's meaning by rendering it as "Gynger coloure, after a whyte russet"—in effect identifying "ginger-coloure" as being equivalent to "whyte russet" rather than as being a third color in parallel to white and russet. Could the origin of ginger as "pale red" be based on a misreading of Elyot by Huloet?
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 26, 2016 at 3:57
  • 1
    This is a better link: books.google.co.uk/… Please note, the comma between whyte and rusette in the excerpt. This is what @SvenYargs was referring to in his earlier comment.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 29, 2016 at 6:47

There's a possible explanation that is very simple — maybe the ginger root (or some of it) that was imported to England in the 18th and early 19th century really was reddish. From the web:

Multiple varieties of ginger can be found, the color of the flesh of the root will range from yellow, ivory, red or light green depending on the variety and age.

Did ginger really used to be reddish?

From The universal receipt book, Philadelphia 1818, we have:

Great care must be taken in selecting ginger for these purposes, not to have any of what is called the black sort, which consists of thick and knotty roots, internally of an orange or brownish colour, but externally of a yellow grey. White ginger, which is less thick and knotty, is externally of a whitish grey or yellow, and internally of a reddish yellow.

So unlike most of the ginger we see in the supermarket today, much of the ginger in Philadelphia in 1818 may have reddish-yellow inside. It is quite possible this was the original color described by "ginger hair".

Looking in other books from the time, both black and white ginger were the roots of the same plant, but preserved differently — black ginger was boiled, while the more expensive white ginger was peeled and sun-dried. Jamaica was one of the chief sources of ginger, and both Philadelphia and England are likely to have used Jamaican ginger.

When did ginger stop being reddish-yellow?

In 1859, we have in A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical, of Commerce and Commercial Navigation, by J.R. McCullough:

The best preserved ginger is nearly translucent; it should be chosen of a bright yellow colour; rejecting that which is dark-coloured, fibrous, and stringy.

One can also find other books in Google books from a few years earlier in the 1850s which also seem to indicate that ginger was yellow, but none of their descriptions is as unambiguous as this one.

After the ginger one found in the market became yellow, it seems that some people started using ginger for yellow-colored hair. Sven Yarg's answer shows that some people considered light yellow hair to be ginger coloured in the second half of the 19th century. He has found the following definitions in Google books—

From 1860:

GINGER HACKLED, having flaxen light yellow hair.

From 1886:

GINGER, adj. sandy-haired.

Both of these definitions seem to come from a time after the ginger sold in markets became yellow.

However, the idea that ginger hair was yellow seems not to have lasted that long. Nowadays, despite the fact that the ginger we buy in stores is yellow, people agree that ginger hair is red, and it is quite possibly a broader range of shades of red than it was originally.

  • We have this book from Philadelphia, 1818, which says "Great care must be taken in selecting ginger for these purposes, not to have any of what is called the black sort ... internally of an orange or brownish colour, but externally of a yellow grey. White ginger ... is externally of a whitish grey or yellow, and internally of a reddish yellow." Jun 25, 2016 at 13:22
  • I can find a few descriptions of ginger as yellow in the second half of the 19th century, and this corresponds well chronologically with the two references (1860 and 1886) @Sven Yargs found saying ginger hair was yellow. Jun 26, 2016 at 12:00
  • hackled must derive from hackle which refers to the feathers on a rooster's neck, and as we know roosters do have a very colourful plumage. Could it be therefore that ginger referred to two different quite separate colours/shades? One reddish, the other sandy-blonde?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 29, 2016 at 7:53
  • I think the first uses of ginger probably referred to the actual color of (some) ginger at the time, which I would guess was reddish-yellow. I think I saw a book that used all of red, ginger and yellow as if they were different colors. Jun 29, 2016 at 10:51
  • @Mari-Lou: I couldn't find any descriptions of the color of ginger flesh as yellow before 1830 or so. Jul 1, 2016 at 11:23

'Ginger' in slang dictionaries and regional glossaries

The earliest dictionary instance I've been able to find in which ginger is used in connection with a description of hair color is in Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), which has this entry:

GINGER PATED or GINGER HACKLED, red haired, a term borrowed from the cock pit, where red cocks are called gingers.

The next is in John Brockett, A Glossary of North Country Words, in Use (1825), which includes this entry:


And then William Carr, The Dialect of Craven: In the West-Riding of the County of York (1828):

GINGER-PATED, CARROTY-PATED, Red haired. Grose's Classical Dict.

And then Robert Forby, The Vocabulary of East-Anglia, volume 2 (1839):

GINGER, adj. of a pale red colour, particularly applied to hair.

Charles Hartshorne, A Glossary of Words Used in Shropshire, published as part of Salopia Antiqua (1841) has an interesting additional note on local usage:

GINGER HACKLED, adj. red haired. This elegant epithet is chiefly applied to the softer sex. Grose.

Anne Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases, volume 1 (1854) has this:

GINGER-PATED. Light-headed, whimmy. A pale red colour, particularly applied to hair.

And John Brogden, Provincial Words and Expressions Current in Lincolnshire (1866) offers this:

Ginger.—A term applied to a red-haired per[son]. Ex. I know ginger has a foul temper.

But John Hotten, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, second edition (1860) has a different color in mind:

GINGER HACKLED, having flaxen light yellow hair.

And Robert Holland, A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester (1886) finds that the people of Chester use ginger to refer to a similar color:

GINGER, adj. sandy-haired. "He's a bit ginger."

John Nodal & George Milner, A Glossary of the Lancashire Dialect (1875), however, resumes the red theme:

GINGER-TOPPIN', sb. an epithet applied to the head of a person whose hair is red.

Very similar entries appear in Henry Cunliffe, A Glossary of Rochdale-with-Rossendale Words and Phrases (1886) and in Sidney Addy, A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield (1888).

Frederick Elworthy, The West Somerset Word-Book of West Somerset (1886) adds this:

GINGER, adj. Reddish in colour ; hence ginger-headed, ginger whiskers. Ginger-poll is a common nickname for a redheaded boy.

Richard Chope, The Dialect of Hartland, Devonshire (1891) uses ginger in a more generalized sense:

GINGER. Reddish in colour. {"Ginger for pluck."}

Early texts that associate 'ginger' with the color red?

The earliest dictionary mention of "ginger pated" as a synonym for red-haired—the one in Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue—suggests that the term originally applied to red-hackled fighting cocks. And indeed a (farcical) "Letter to the Editors of the Sporting Magazine," from one "Sam Snaffle" in Sporting Magazine (March 1797) confirms the cock-fighting connection:


I am a buck of the first head, I keep a curricle and a brace of tits; am a constant attendant at Newmarket and Epsom meetings, make a dash at the Cock-pit, cut a figure on a Sunday in Rottenrow, and am, in my opinion, quite an accomplished fellow: and yet, Gentlemen, would you believe it, I cannot persuade Miss W———s, to whom I said all the tender civil things in the world, to listen to my addresses. She smiles at my professions of love, and particular regard for her, and actually asked me a few days ago, after I had given her a particular account of a match between me and Sir John Jostle, which might have captivated a cherub, whether I was not out of my senses.


Though I say it, I know a thing or two, for I do not ride above ten stone, saddle, whip and all. In cocking, I suppose you will not find a better breed of gingers, or a nicer walk for the purpose in the world. I know the long odds, and hedging is my forte. Have always been fortunate in calling seven and nicking it. As to cricket, when I played last summers, the amateurs declared they never knew such a stop behind, it would have done you good to see the notches I got off on my own bat, and I astonished the oldest of them with bowling. In my famous match at Billiards, with the Italian, I gave him fix with my cane, and pocketed him. And at Tennis, with a bare brush under my leg, I beat the noted marker from Paris.

(My thanks to Josh61 for pointing out the existence of this missive.) An even earlier instance appears in a discussion of "The Cock-Match," in Hogarth Moralized: Being a Complete Edition of Hogarth's Works (1768), in which the two fighting cocks depicted are named Ginger and Pye:

Take notice, then, of this group of gamblers, of all ranks; as well noblemen, as butchers, chimney-sweepers, shoe-blacks, post-boys, thieves, and blackguards of all denominations; I say noblemen, for, to what meanness will not men submit, to gratify their reigning passion? Read in their faces, the disposition of their hearts. ... Next the pit, on the left of this plate, is one man, registering the bets; another, with a bag, containing a favourite cock, for a by-battle; and, near him, another, with the utmost eagerness, bawling out, "Ginger against Pye, for that piece who says done?"

And that same year, a discussion of Colley-Wesley, Earl of Mornington, in Edward Kinber & John Almon, The Peerage of Ireland, volume 1 (1768) has this description of the earl's crest, supporters, and motto:

CREST.} On a wreath, an armed arm erect, couped below the elbow, the hand proper, the wrist encircled with a ducal coronet, topaz, holding a spear in bend, with a banner of St. George appendant.

SUPPORTERS.} Two game-cocks, ginger, trimmed, proper.

MOTTO.} Unica virtus necessaria.

"Two game-cocks, ginger, trimmed, proper" sounds delicious, but presumably they look more formidable than a package of Foster Farms fryers.

An early instance of ginger used in the sense of red-haired appears in Joseph Reed, Tom Jones: A Comic Opera, second edition (1769), which begins at Squire Western's house in the immediate aftermath of a fox hunt:

Western. Gentlemen, tho' none of you will stay dinner, I must insist on your pushing it about. We've had a hard ride, and a refreshing draught will not be amiss—come, brother sportsman, to our next merry meeting in the field. {drinks.

1st Gentleman. Thank you, my old soul—{taking the tankard.} And here's wishing the next fox may give us as much sport, as that ginger-colour'd gentleman. {drinks.

The "ginger-colour'd gentleman" in this case is the recently deceased red fox, whom the audience meets as soon as the curtain rises, because the stage directions call for the scene to open on "WESTERN, JONES, SUPPLE, and four Country Gentlemen, just returned from a Fox-Chace; two French Horns, a Huntsman bearing a Fox's Head, and a Servant with a large Tankard, which he hands round during the Song."

Conclusion: Why 'ginger' for 'red'?

Why was the color of certain specially bred fighting fowls' hackles associated with ginger?

One possibility is that the plant that 18th- and 19th-century English speakers were referring to wasn't the spicy yellowish root of Zingiber officinale—though it was certainly well known in England from an early date—but a different plant altogether. One candidate is a plant commonly known as garden-ginger. In some old sources "garden-ginger" is identified with dittander (Lepidium latifolium), a plant that is related to mustard and has panicles of very small white flowers. Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1731) has this definition of the plant in question:

DICTAMNUM, DICTAMNUS, dittander, dittany, or garden-ginger ; an herb of singular virtue for expelling poison.

Robert Lovell, Pambotanologia Sive Enchiridion Botanicum, or, A Compleat Herball, second edition (1665) has the entry

Garden-ginger, see, Dittander.

and then in the entry for dittander offers this description:

Dittander. Ger[ard] K[indes] as the common and annuall. T[emperature] the leeves but especially the roots, are very hot, burning and bitter. V[ertue] it causeth blisters, and by its hot quality it mendeth the skin in the face, taking away scabs, scars, and manginess, if any thing remain after the healings of ulcers &c. Park[inson] the French is hot and fiery, sharp as the rest, and works the same effects : it h[elpeth] gouts and any paine in the joynts, or other inveterate griefs, the leaves bruised and m[ixed] with old axungia ap[plied] as Sciatica cresses, and h[elpeth] discoloring of the skin, and burnings with iron: the juyce d[runk] in ale c[auseth] speedy delivery in travaille : the leaves held in the hand ease the tooth ach, it's used for sauce for cold stomacks.

Another source, however, says that garden-ginger is another name for cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum), which has white flowers but (when ripe) bright red fruits. From James Halliwell, A Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words, second edition (1852):

GARDEN-GINGER. Cayenne pepper.

Mistaken or not, Halliwell persists in this identification at least through the tenth edition (1881) of his dictionary.

But whether the fighting cocks' red hackles were called ginger in honor of Cayenne peppers, or in honor of blister-causing dittander, or in honor of plain ginger root, I think the likeliest explanation for the connection is that ginger (or garden-ginger) is hot to the taste, and heat suggests fire (or a fiery temperament), and fire suggests redness.

  • 1
    I have, in any case found the a copy online of the Abecedarium Anglico-Latinum gynger coloure, after a whyte russet without a comma between whyte and russet
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 29, 2016 at 14:23
  • Also of note: The University of Michigan's transcription of The Dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot Kinight (1538) does not include the comma after whyte ("Melinus, na, num, whyte russette, or a gyn∣ger coloure."), whereas Gabriele Stein, Sir Thomas Elyot as Lexicographer (2013) [to which I linked in a comment beneath Josh61's answer] does: "Melinus, na, num, whyte, russette, or a gyn=ger coloure.") does. The question is whether the original Elyot dictionary includes the comma after whyte.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 29, 2016 at 17:41

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.

  • Does the color in these cakes (and other similar desserts) really come from the ginger, or from the cinnamon that typically accompanies it? Jul 24, 2012 at 3:08
  • Gingerbread is brown.
    – tchrist
    Jul 24, 2012 at 19:25

I hate to add this rather robust listing of answers, but I believe this may have been missed. I believe that (speaking on behalf of my age) the term came about because ginger was often pickled for storage, adding longevity and preservation for its use. As a result it is very red in color....

Pickled ginger images

So the reference was a natural association to the color of picked ginger.

Pickling began at different time around the globe...

pickling history

Pickling began 4000 years ago using cucumbers native to India.[ Wiki-pedia references some history on pickling dating back 4000 years....

there is also a source reference to science of pickling

  • The images don't seem to confirm the redness, pickled ginger appear to have a salmon colour. I don't know if pickled ginger was ever used for cooking in England during the 18th or 19th century either. It's my impression that the most popular way of preserving ginger was reducing it to powder form.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 27, 2016 at 14:40
  • Sorry, I should have first thanked you for submitting an answer. I don't know what's happened to my manners. Thank you for contributing to the "gingergate debate" :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 27, 2016 at 16:04
  • No problem, I simply recalled this association from great grandmother when I was child and wanted to share it, ironic how it came up here after a recent discussion at home. I wanted to add more source info when I first posted but did not have time.
    – htm11h
    Jun 27, 2016 at 16:09

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.

  • If you cited a reliable reference, you would get an upvote from me. Sep 12, 2012 at 10:22
  • 19
    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. Sep 12, 2012 at 15:52
  • 5
    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, 2013 at 19:04
  • 6
    "Ginger" on the TV was named that, because (for decades before hand), "Ginger" was the nickname for a redhead.
    – Fattie
    Aug 31, 2014 at 14:18

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