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Indian giver is an American expression used to describe a person who gives a gift (literal or figurative) and later wants it back, or something equivalent in return.
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," 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."
As recently as 1979, the phrase was used in mainstream media publications, but in the 1997 book The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, writer and editor Philip Herbst says that although the phrase is often used innocently by children, it may be interpreted as offensive, and The Copyeditor's Handbook (1999) describes it as objectionable.
The phrase originated, according to researcher David Wilton, in a cultural misunderstanding that arose when Europeans first encountered Native Americans on arriving in North America in the 15th century. Europeans thought they were receiving gifts from Native Americans, while the Native Americans believed they were engaged in bartering: this resulted in the Europeans finding Native American behaviour ungenerous and insulting.
In popular culture
The term "Indian giver" is used on Seinfeld in the episode titled "The Cigar Store Indian", where Winona (Kimberly Norris) gives Jerry a TV guide to have and wants it back later as she wants to use it in a report.
Also used in the movie The Giant Mechanical Man when at the Zoo a customer buys from Janice (Jenna Fischer) what he believes is Grape Juice for his daughter and after tasting wants to return it as it is actually Grape Drink.
Also used in the film Beloved Infidel by Gregory Peck as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Also used in the television show Pysch in the episode titled "Bollywood Homicide", where (Shawn Spencer) calls Detective (Carlton Lassiter) out as an "indian giver" when he revokes a truce. An immediate serious response was given among participants of the "Holi Festival" as Shawn apologizes with "No, no, no, no, no, no. I-I meant to insult an entirely different group of Indians. Sorry. Sorry about that."
- "An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected." (Thomas Hutchinson, History of Massachusetts, from the first settlement thereof in 1628, until the year 1750, in two volumes, 1795).
- The OED's earliest citation for "Indian giver" is John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1860).
- Rosenberg, Marcy (11 June 1976). "IBM President Warns: Despite Growth, Trouble Looms for Computer Industry". Computerworld. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
- Herbst, Philip H. (1997). The Color of Words: an encyclopaedic dictionary of ethnic bias in the United States. Yarmouth Me: Intercultural Press. pp. 119–20. ISBN 1877864978.
- Einsohn, Amy (1999). The Copyeditor's Handbook: a guide for book publishing and corporate communications, with exercises and answer keys. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 450. ISBN 0520218345.
- Brunetti, David Wilton; illustrated by Ivan (2009). Word Myths: debunking linguistic urban legends. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195375572.