Tag Archives: Slang

Indian Givers: Centuries Old Misunderstandings

Hello, Bologna readers.

This week, I have an expression which has a good amount of historical context to it. It’s an extremely common one & I would be very surprised if any of you hadn’t heard it before. Let’s get to it.

I remember hearing the phrase for the first time from my grandmother, while we were visiting her house on Cape Cod. One of my father’s friends was visiting with his young children & they had brought cookies for dessert. As they were leaving, one of the kids grabbed the box of cookies, not realizing that it’s customary to leave the food you bring to someone’s house as a gift. My dad’s friend explained the custom & my grandmother jokingly called him an Indian giver. Being no more than twelve, I didn’t know the phrase either, so I asked what it meant. She explained that it’s a phrase used to label someone who brings a gift & tries to take it back.

For many English people, the phrase implies a reference to Indians from India & for most North Americans, it implies a reference to the Native population.  Unfortunately for the English, the latter is correct, & the widespread usage has given those populations a reputation as people who take back their gifts. This is a big misunderstanding & can actually be drawn back to the ignorance of European settlers in what is now the United States & Canada. After realizing their mistake, they deliberately spun it to make the Natives look bad, labeled it a lack of civility & used it to justify warring & conquering.

See, many of the Native cultures had group mentalities, which resembled communism. They believed that land belonged to the Earth & that humans were just borrowing it temporarily. This idea extended to property as well. Many items were communally owned, so people also borrowed from & shared with others. Everything was done for the good of the tribe.

There wasn’t any problem with this until the Europeans showed up because they were the exact opposite. Land ownership concrete rules regarding possessions & working for personal gain were cornerstones of their society, so when the two cultures met, there was obviously some friction. Trading was the biggest trigger for those tensions.

Many times, when a trade was made, a member of a tribe would come to request the item back, a perfectly acceptable gesture, according Native culture. The Europeans, having the opposite societal values, didn’t take too kindly to this & begrudgingly did so. Other times, they’d flat out refuse, offending the tribe. Sometimes, a tribal member would come & just take it back, which, of course, offend the settlers. On & on it went like this.

The men on the Lewis & Clark expedition met many Native Americans & in no time, predictably ran into these problems. Because neither side had a concept of cultural understanding, for the most part, the groups didn’t get along. This is where the propaganda comes in. Both Lewis & Clark were angry, & knowing that their journals would be published upon their return, they labeled the natives as, “impertinent and thievish.” Well, the journals were published & word spread. So did public opinion.

The propaganda trip that white settlers took would eventually go as far as to use the word “Indian” to describe something fake or a cheap substitute. Indian tea & Indian corn were cheap substitutes for British goods, & the connotation of the wod. Indian summers, or seemingly random spells of warm weather which come right before the turn of the winter season, take the name from this, as well. The unnatural bouts of summer weather are deceitful & essentially fake summers.


Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Put a Sock in it: Adjusting Volume & Life in the Trenches

Last week, a friend of mine asked me to do a post letting you all know where “putting your foot in your mouth” comes from. After a lot of looking, the best answer I can come up with is that nobody really knows.

To make up for it, I’m going to do another one this week.

Put a sock in it! It sounds similar to the requested phrase, but the meaning is completely different. For those who don’t know, it’s a way to tell someone to be quiet & it’s usually used impatiently.

The common consensus is that it’s a reference to phonographs, or record players. We all know what a record player looks like today, with the turntable & needle. When you hook it up to speakers, let it play & you have some amazing purely analog sound, the likes of which, you can’t get anywhere else. The phonograph was “invented” in 1877 by Thomas Edison (By invented, I mean had parts stolen from devices which had already been invented, all while killing animals to discredit real inventors) & back then, it looked a little different.

My opinion of Edison aside, phonographs work by putting a needle to thin grooves in either a cylindrical or disk shaped record. The vibration of the needle against tiny ridges in the grooves creates sound. Try playing a record with the volume all the way down. You can hear the music coming from the grooves. It’s very quiet, so these days, a wire attached to the needle converts the vibrations into a signal. It runs from the needle to the receiver, & then on to the speakers. The first phonograph wasn’t powered by electricity. This meant that there was no electrical signal & no speakers. Instead, the amplification came in the form of an amplifying horn. It worked on the same principle as early megaphones.


A phonograph: Based on a painting of the same name, this is the original advertisement & logo for the Victor Talking Machine Company, maker of the famous phonograph brand, Victrola. It would eventually be bought out by RCA & that company would acquire the logo rights. PS the dog’s name is Nipper.
(Image of advertisement is in Public Domain)

Phonographs could only play at one volume level because the only thing that determined the volume level depended on the size of the horn was. In some cases, it was too loud for a room. The only way to turn the volume down was to throw a rag -possibly a sock- in.

The website, World Wide Words claims that this isn’t likely because one of he first written examples shows up in 1929. It shows up in a book by Frederic Manning called The Middle Parts of Fortune. It’s about his experiences in the World War I trenches. The passage is this:

“I’m not miserable, corporal,” said little Martlow. “We’re not dead yet. On’y I’m not fightin’ for any fuckin’ Beljums, see. One o’ them buggers wanted to charge me five frong for a loaf o’ bread.”
“Well, put a sock in it. We’ve ’ad enough bloody talk now.”

Another use shows up in 1919 in a special wartime series of articles & illustrations in an Australian magazine called Western Mail. World Wide Words claims that since 1919 was well after phonographs made their way into people’s homes, it’s most likely that the phrase nothing more than wartime slang that the soldiers brought back.

I tend to like the first explanation a little more because I’m a music freak & it’s a little more romanticized than, “A bunch of soldiers just kind of said it.”

At any rate, it’s certainly an interesting expression & its origins seem just as interesting.

There you have it; you’re welcome.

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