Ask Language Log: "…white of you"

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Reader KH asks:

I currently have a number of people trying to convince me that the phrase "that's mighty white of you" originated in the American South in the ~1920s, deriving from racial ideas of whiteness and white supremacy.  It was my understanding that "white" in this phrase derived from completely non-racial ideas correlating whiteness with purity or goodness.  Do you know of any source that might settle this?  I have not been able to find anything reliable on my own and thought you might have more extensive resources at your disposal.

I believe that those other people are more right than you are, though they're wrong about the details. The phrase — in its general form "(INTENSIFIER) white of PRONOUN" — seems to have originated in the 1890s, and was not especially associated with the American south. Rather, Americans in general used it to identify behavior felt to be stereotypically associated with WASPs, or at least with those of the better classes, as opposed to the dishonorable behavior to be expected from blacks, indians, jews, and pretty much everybody else.

The OED glosses sense 4.b. of white as

slang or colloq. (by extension from white man n. 2b; orig. U.S.) Honourable; square-dealing. Also as adv.

with these citations:

1876 W. Besant & J. Rice Golden Butterfly II. v. 83   A good fellow is Rayner; as white a man as I ever knew.
1890 Cent. Mag. Feb. 523/2   There ain't a whiter man than Laramie Jack from the Wind River Mountains down to Santa Fe.
1913 E. Wharton Custom of Country ix,   Well—this is white of you.
1913 E. Wharton Custom of Country xviii,   I meant to act white by you.

It's easy to find citations for the "(INTENSIFIER) white of PRONOUN" usage somewhat before 1913, e.g.

"It's deuced white of you, Vertner," said Philip, with gloomy gratitude; "but you can't do it." (Wolcott Balestier, "Benefits Forgot",  The Century Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

(Balestier died in 1891, so Benefits Forgot must have been written earlier than 1893.)

It's worth noting that in those days, "white" didn't have the connotation that it does today, but rather referred (approximately) to northern European protestants and their descendants, excluding (for example) jews:

"Well, I got the wagon all right and one fine, large and subsequent day I pays Mr. Wolf in full, him sorrowfully but firmly declining to partake of any interest; which was pretty damn white of him, when you stop to consider the style of nose he wore, and shows what climate will do." (Eugene Manlove Rhodes, "Sticky Pierce, Diplomat", Out West ["The Nation Back of Us, The World in Front: A Magazine of the Old Pacific and the New"], October 1906)

(For an interesting discussion of the historical transition of Italian immigrants on this dimension, see Jennifer Guglielmo & Salvatore Salerno, Eds., Are Italians White?)

Throughout American history, white was often implicitly or explicitly opposed to indian rather than to black. Thus in James Fenimore Cooper's 1840 novel The Pathfinder,

"A soldier's calling is an honorable calling, provided he has fi't only on the side of right," returned the Pathfinder; "and as the Frenchers are always wrong, and His Sacred Majesty and the these colonies are always right, I take it the serjeant has a quiet conscience, as well as a good character. I have never slept more sweetly than when I have fi't the Mingos, though it is the law with me to fight always like a white man, and never like an Injin."

And in certain places at certain times, the default non-white group would have been Chinese or Mexican.

So the predicative phrase "(INTENSIFIER) white of PRONOUN" seems clearly to be American in origin, but I don't find any evidence that it has any particular association with the American south. In fact, all of the early examples that I've seen are from other parts of the country: the west, the midwest, or the northeast.

It seems to have become common during the period 1890-1920 or so, and to have been used to differentiate the stereotypically dependable ethics of WASPs from the stereotypically questionable ethics of everyone else.

An older British semi-equivalent is the phrase "like a christian", where the noun christian is used in the OED's sense 3.b., glossed as

colloq. or slang. A ‘decent’, ‘respectable’, or ‘presentable’ person.

Typical examples are

1749 H. Fielding Tom Jones IV. xii. iii. 208   A fitter Food for a Horse than a Christian.
1844 Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit xxxiv. 409   You must take your passage like a Christian; at least, as like a Christian as a fore-cabin passenger can.

Similarly, the adjective christian in sense 5.b., glossed as

mod. colloq. or slang. Of things: Becoming a Christian; ‘civilized’, ‘decent’, ‘respectable’.

with examples like

1682 T. D'Urfey Butler's Ghost 76   Christian breeches without hole.
1819 Scott Legend of Montrose vi, in Tales of my Landlord 3rd Ser. IV. 137   Had you been to fight with any christian weapons.

Thus in a passage from William Congreve's The Old Batchelor (1693), Belinda tells Araminta about her attempts in Mrs. Snipwell's shop to improve the appearance of a country squire's wife and two daughters, who were

… so bedeck'd, you would have taken 'em for Friezland hens, with their feathers growing the wrong way — O, such out-landish creatures! Such Tramontanae, and foreigners to the fashion, or any thing in practice! […]

I did endeavour to make her look like a Christian — and she was sensible of it; for she thank'd me, and gave me two apples, piping hot, out of her under-petticoat pocket.

Update — the Google ngrams plots for American and British books sketch a plausible trajectory for this expression.



81 Comments

  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    Sadly, the "fair-dealing" sense of the word white is current in at least some parts of the speech community in the UK as well. I recall that when I was working in a rock band many years ago, a couple of working-class guys from the Midlands region of England who were in the band would use Hey, play the white man! to mean "Be fair". I understood it on first hearing, and formed the impression that (hilariously) the idiom sprang from an assumption that white men would always be fair, while other races could not be trusted. I guess it did surprise me that they used the phrase unreflectingly despite the significant numbers of black people we met and worked with, including the singer in the band (an African American) and my wife at the time (a Jamaican). But then there were plenty of shocks and surprises in store for a non-racist living in England back then…

  2. Felix said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    Wow. This is a complete reversal from my previous understanding of the phrase, which I had only heard used by African American speakers to sarcastically comment on the tightfisted rigidity of whites. The origin that this usage must have been playing on was not something I knew about.

  3. Felix said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 11:53 am

    See the first definition in the urban dictionary.

  4. Jp said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    I vividly remember hearing the phrase "that's mighty white of you" several times in college (in the late 1990s) in Charleston, SC, among a small group of fellow students. Some were openly prejudiced, though others seemed to not be prejudiced at all. All were from the Deep South, and when I approached one person in particular about it, she seemed surprised that anyone might find it offensive. It was just something people said, as far as she was concerned.

  5. John Walden said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    If the default state of a white man was meant to be honest and fair-dealing presumably the default state of a ("Red") Indian was not, unless he was an "honest Injun", said if somebody doubted your word. We had picked that up from somewhere in 60s Britain, cowboy serials or comic books perhaps. Always pronounced and spelt "Injun" for some reason.

    There's some way still to go. It's still common in Spain to hear "Habláme en cristiano". I'd guess this has to do with "Moros" (Moors/North Africans), also still heard.

  6. Tim Silverman said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    Nitpick: The Old Bachelor dates from 1693 (Congreve died in 1729).

    [(myl) Sorry — typo fixed now.]

  7. Sashi said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    funny, I had always wondered about the sarcastic phrase "that's mighty wide of you" when you cut someone some slack when you hold all the cards… I should've known I was mishearing this expression. Your article makes it all much less puzzling how the usage I heard in the 90s midwest might have come about…

  8. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    I grew up on the Delmarva Peninsula (that coastal region comprising most of Delaware and the easternmost parts of Maryland and Virginia). Excepting the northernmost parts of Delaware, the ethos of the place has always been very southern; indeed, Frederick Douglass was enslaved in what is now quite a posh section of Maryland.

    Good god, the racism! I grew up (60s-70s) hearing "nigger," "colored boy," "mighty white of you," and "that's not Christian" all the freaking time, and did until I left for good in the 1980s. I imagine both phrases (and their ilk) enjoy currency today, as they were frequently uttered by my own generation.

  9. Barrie England said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

    An' for all 'is dirty 'ide
    'E was white, clear white, inside
    When 'e went to tend the wounded under fire!

    From Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Gunga Din’

    [(myl) Gunga Din was published in 1892, and Kipling was Wolcott Balestier's brother-in-law, FWIW.]

  10. Rube said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    Not very early, but perhaps of interest:

    "Duke, I hope I am not incognisant of the laws that govern the relations of guest and host. But, Duke, I aver deliberately that the founder of this fine old club; at which you are so splendidly entertaining me to-night, was an unmitigated scoundrel. I say he was not a white man."

    From " Zuleika Dobson", 1911.

    Uttered by an American character, but clearly understood by his British audience.

  11. Adam said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    I've always been under the impression that "that's mighty white of you" was meant to be sarcastic, like "your sh*t doesn't stink, does it?".

  12. Tom Recht said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    If memory serves, Bertie uses this phrase occasionally in the Jeeves and Wooster books. So I don't think it's exclusively American.

    [(myl) Yes to the memory — from Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves:

    I said I had said it did him credit. Very white of him, I said I thought it.

    "I" here is Bertie Wooster.

    But P.G. Wodehouse spent a good fraction of his life in the U.S., so there might have been some idiom leakage. And Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, was published in 1963, almost 20 years after Wodehouse moved to the U.S. permanently.]

  13. Aviatrix said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    I'm with Felix, surprised to discover that the phrase predates its ironic usage by non-whites. I would interpret "That's mighty white of you" as meaning "screw you," and expect to hear it from a First Nations person who didn't like my behaviour. I can understand someone saying "do the Christian thing" because they're talking about emulating an example preached and set by a holy man of the religion, and to me it doesn't imply that the Islamic, Jewish or Buddhist thing wouldn't be just as charitable. But given how thoroughly and from first contact the whites mistreated other races, it's hard to believe that "white of you" hasn't on some level been ironic all along.

    [Just another example of how belief-difficulty is in the eye of the beholder. For me, it's hard to believe that people find this hard to believe.]

  14. jfruh said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    Cary Grant says this to Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. Definitely found it jarring.

    I think the idea that "white" could = "good" in a sense completely unremoved from the ways we think about ethnicity is kind of impossible, even without this sort of historical evidence. I mean, it's just easier to make that kind of association if you belong to ethnic group labelled "white," isn't it?

  15. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    I was raised in Kentucky in the fifties, and I remember the phrase only from books except for one instance, in which it was used sarcastically: "Jesus loves me this I know/Mighty mighty white of Jesus."

  16. David Fried said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    @John Walden:

    I'd be curious to know in what context people say "hablame en cristiano" in Spain. Does it mean "Speak frankly or honestly" or "Speak plainly and simply"? "Algarabia," which is simply Arabic for "the Arabic language," still means "meaningless babble"in Spanish.

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    In John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915), the mysterious stranger who starts the whole adventure off tells the narrator at one point "I haven't the privilege of your name, Sir, but let me tell you that you're a white man." I've always assumed this was an example of the usage under discussion here, which I wasn't otherwise familiar with. The character who says it is supposed to be American, but I doubt Buchan was familiar with American regionalisms. I think it's much more likely that this usage was found everywhere in English (as suggested by several commentators already).

  18. bfwebster said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

    So…what's the provenance of the somewhat related phrase, "free, white and twenty-one"? The phrase underscores an inherent legal/social advantage of 'whites' vs. 'others' in American society. ..bruce..

  19. Andrew Garrett said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

    @Bob Ladd: I had always vaguely assumed that Buchan's use of the expression here was a "colonialism"; Buchan's time in South Africa colors his books in many ways. Cf. Kipling, as above or in Captains Courageous (published 1897): "Dan, you're a white man" (spoken in response to a gift. I wonder where to find information about the English used by Anglos and Boers in southern African about a century ago.)

  20. Carl said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    Grew up in South Carolina but never noticed the phrase until college. Most whites who use the phrase seem convinced of a non-racial meaning to the phrase.

  21. Dave M said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    Interesting – I've never heard this, but I have heard "mighty *black* of you" (that is, a compliment from one black person to another), with varying degrees of irony.

  22. Robert Coren said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

    @Rube: Although the remark you quote from Zuleikja Dobson is "understood" by British interlocutors and/or readers, the speaker is a broad caricature of an American, and this remark is clearly intended as an element of that caricature.

  23. Mallard said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

    From and interview with Terry Southern http://www.altx.com/interviews/terry.southern.html:

    Southern describes Slim Pickens first day on the set of Dr. Strangelove:

    "Stanley {Kubrick] went, "Look there's James Earl Jones on a collision course with Slim. Better go over and introduce them." James Earl Jones knew that Pickens had just worked with Brando. Jones was impressed and asked Pickens how the experience of working with Brando went. "Well, I worked with Marlon Brando for six months and in that time, I never saw him do one thing that wasn't all man and all white." Slim didn't even realize what he was saying. I glanced at James Earl Jones and he didn't crack."

  24. Margaret S. said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

    In Mexico (and I don’t know how much this generalizes to other Spanish-speaking countries), ‘hablar en cristiano’ simply means to talk sense, as opposed to nonsense or incomprehensible circumlocutions (or to speak Spanish, as opposed to another language one doesn’t understand). Also, ‘cristiano’ can be a synonym for ‘person,’ in rather a similar register as ‘soul’ is in English when used simply to mean person. Moreover, -azo is a suffix for nouns that refers to a strike, blow or hit, and ‘cristianazo’ can be used as a somewhat jocular way about a person’s having been struck or hit (e.g. in a soccer game).

  25. Andrew Rodland said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

    @David Fried the basic meaning is simply "speak Spanish to me", and sometimes it means literally that (if someone is speaking a foreign language or speaking incomprehensibly). It could also be said to someone who's using a lot of jargon or doublespeak. The connotations are the same as if I asked you "could you say that in English?" — it's just that, owing to history, cristiano is (in context) synonymous with español/castellano, as opposed to algarabia.

    To describe a person as "cristiano", on the other hand, is often to convey that they're honest and decent (or in the American vernacular, "mighty white"), or simply that they're not foreign — rather than that they're literally Christian.

  26. Rube said,

    June 4, 2011 @ 8:54 pm

    @Robert Coren:

    Oh, definitely. But it's a caricatured American expression that sends the British ghost in the club into a rage.

  27. Jeff Adams said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 1:58 am

    A few months ago I texted a friend if she would like to go out to our favorite neighborhood bar and she replied that she had tickets for Toad the Wet Sprocket. In my reply I typed, "How very nineties of you," but my phone's autocorrect program changed "nineties" to "nonwhite." I was mortified. I have heard people say "mighty white of you" many times and it always makes the utterer seem to be in serious need of social, intellectual, and philosophical enlightenment.

  28. Jeff Adams said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 2:00 am

    Oops. I left out the words "to ask" in the first sentence of my previous post.

  29. ShadowFox said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 2:08 am

    "Mighty White Man" predates "white of you" by quite a bit.

    Rev. Josiah Priest, Bible Defense of Slavery; and Origin, Fortunes and History of the Negro Race. Glasgow, Ky, 1852; p. 262

    Why roam, therefore, thou negro man, like beasts of blood and prey,
    Naked and starv'd, no house or home, like a lost child astray ?
    Ah, mighty white man, ask thou this—poor negro have no trade ;
    He sees no flax, no stone, or tree, from which such things are made !
    He does not know that gold and trade, with labor infinite,
    Has brush'd away from nature's face the gloom of ancient night.
    His pate is thick, his brain is small, deep buried up in wool—
    He does not know, as white men do, but lives and dies a fool.
    Oh, white man, take us from ourselves, our huts, our holes, our caves !
    Oh, feed and clothe us, teach us too, arid we will be your slaves !

    The meaning, in this particular case, is similar, although it's not always so.

    Anna Hanson Dorsey, Woodreve Manor: Or, Six Months in Town. A Tale of American Life, to Suit the Merits and the Follies of the Times. Philadelphia, 1852, p. 260

    "Those 'ere orange flowers just suit a bride, Miss Etha! They'll look mighty white and pretty in your black hair, miss!" observed Paula, picking up one of the blossoms that had fallen.
    "Orange flowers—bride! Did you speak, Paula?" said Edith, starting, aroused all too suddenly from her beautiful vision, and letting the flowers drop as she remembered all.
    "Yes, Miss Etha. Iu course, you'll wear the orange flowers to-morrow, being as how it's all the fashion 'mongst the quality, of which you am one. I was a'saying, miss, they'd look mighty handsome in your hair, it's so black. Here's Mr. Shirley's note; won't you read it, Miss Etha?" said Paula, handing it to her.

    There is a phrase "How white of you!" in 1887 Time magazine, but GoogleBooks only offers a snippet, so there is no context (except that it is from a play and seems to be on point).

  30. John Cowan said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 2:26 am

    B.F. Webster: "Free, white, and (over) twenty-one" is an assertion of independence, often used in its day by women.

    [(myl) There's another usage, applied to other people, that means something like "able to look after themselves and therefore not my responsibility". Years ago, a co-worker of mine sold her car to a visiting researcher from Japan, who needed reliable transportation for a year and had a limited amount of money for his visit. She failed to inform him that she was selling the car because her mechanic had told her the transmission was about to fail, and needed to be replaced. It locked up a week or so after the sale, leaving him without transportation and lacking the money to get it fixed. When I complained to her about this, her response was "He's free, white and twenty one". Of course, she was a fan of Ayn Rand, so this was a predictable reaction, I guess.]

  31. John Walden said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 2:33 am

    @ David Fried. I'm with Margaret S and Andrew Rodland. Here in Northern Mainland Spain "cristiano" means "Spanish" if the speaker is referring to another language and "not gibberish" if to Spanish.

    Another by-product of the history of Spain is the widespread use of the word Castellano for the language, though discussion of that might derail the thread even more.

    There was nothing ironic in the sixties about little upper middle-class British boys being told to 'play the white man' or taking in huge doses of the casual racism of Biggles, Bulldog Drummond et al. Nor indeed about routinely using "jew" as a verb meaning "cheat" and a huge range of words, like "wogs" and "dagos", for other nationalities and skin colours. I daresay some of my then companions are unrepentantly still talking like that in private, though not in public at the tops of their voices these days. Which is progress of a sort.

  32. John Walden said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 2:38 am

    Sorry to post again. I meant to add that this was brand of bread in the UK twenty years ago if not more recently:

    http://profile.ak.fbcdn.net/hprofile-ak-snc4/50315_19598928539_1976_n.jpg

  33. Jon said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 3:08 am

    @John Walden
    Not just upper middle class British. And I recall people saying "The wogs begin at Calais" as a general expression of contempt for the French and other foreigners.

  34. Mark Etherton said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 5:28 am

    'Play the white man' is not the only BrE expression derived from the Empire: there's also 'a sahib', used to mean 'A gentleman; someone considered socially acceptable' (OED definition 2). The first OED citation is 1919.

  35. Trimegistus said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 7:22 am

    Horrors! People once used terms we find offensive! What dreadful people they must have been!

    [(myl) I'm rather fond of Kipling, myself. But I find it difficult to warm up to your undeviatingly bitter and malicious attitude.]

  36. biagio said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 9:03 am

    Italian is another language in which "cristiano" can be synonymous with "human being" or "person". Unlike Spanish, it doesn't refer to speaking an unintelligible language.

  37. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    Non-racial associations of whiteness with cleanliness, moral purity, etc. etc. are very very old (Isaiah 1:18, for example, was not an encoding of Israelite prejudice concerning American Indians), but I initially found it quite puzzling/implausible to hear that some people out there understood this particular expression in a non-racial sense. But maybe that's itself an interesting datum to consider. Presumably such people find it a useful turn of phrase which can be, they think, used non-racially (perhaps there's a perceived lack of a rival stock phrase meaning something like "acting in conformity with the standards of good behavior our [non-racially-defined] society/culture aspires to but which are not in practice always met by all members thereof"?), but which then needs a non-racial folk etymology so that it can be used by respectable folks such as themselves who would not intentionally use racially-loaded expressions. This seems a more ambitious project than, e.g., salvaging a children's counting rhyme by swapping in "tiger" for a word which has become taboo, but I suppose odder reinterpretations have occurred in the history of the language.

  38. Dakota said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    There are a couple of examples of "Swedes and white men" collected by John Emerson
    http://haquelebac.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/katherine-anne-porter-noon-wine/
    and another one at
    http://www.online-literature.com/poe/103/

    “Yes, indeedy,” added Kink. “We ain’t in no charity business a- disgorgin’ free an’ generous to Swedes an’ white men.”

  39. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    I sometimes wonder if our similar use of "classy"/"classless" might be considered similarly offensive in a better world.

  40. Mr Punch said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    "White man": During WWII, my father was told by a fellow officer (American), "You're the first scientist I've met who was a white man." This is consistent with Mark Etherton's interpretation.

    Nitpicking: Cooper's Pathfinder is 1840 – the author died in 1851.

  41. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    There's an interesting similar use of "catholique" in french, but strictly as a negative polarity item: "C'est pas très catholique" (not very catholique), i.e. it's morally dubious, it's suspicious.

  42. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    @Sashi:

    I imagine your misparsing of "mighty white of you" as "mighty wide of you" is due to postlexical t/d-flapping, but it's interesting to me (and probably to jfruh) that you couldn't differentiate the words based on the raising of the preceding diphthong. I'm guessing you don't raise /ay/ before voiceless obstruents?

    @David Fried:

    Is the 'g' in "Algarabia" the Spanish representation of the Arabic voiced pharyngeal fricative in "al 'Arabiyya"?

    @Andrew Garrett:

    I suppose it's fairly predictable that to use "white" as a term for "socially/ethically proper" would only arise in a society with significant racial divisions, which would mostly be found in the colonies. Geoff Pullum's memories of people using this term no doubt reflect the social situation in Britain only after considerable non-white immigration. What's interesting is that the analogous use of "Christian" to describe the same quality arose in British society before there was a significant non-Christian population. I imagine in that context "Christian" was being used in the sense of "Christian behavior", i.e. someone who actually obeyed the tenets of what society as a whole professed, rather than a nominal Christian who drank, swore, gambled or fornicated, of whom there must always have been a significant number. The Spanish phrase "hablar en cristiano", on the other hand, can only plausibly recall the social situation in Muslim-governed Spain, where religious differences were identified with linguistic ones.

    On that note, what exactly was the sociolinguistic situation in Muslim Spain? Were Muslims always predominantly Arabic-speaking, even after centuries of contact with Latin/Spanish-speaking Christians? Were there populations of Arabic-speaking Christians? I'm thinking of analogous situations in the Middle East. For example, up until the population exchanges of 1922, central Anatolia (Cappadocia) contained a significant population of Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians, who had lived under Turkish Muslim rule since before the Ottoman period.

  43. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    In Spanish, "No estoy muy católico hoy" = I'm not feeling so hot.

  44. Maneki Nekko said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

    Also in French: the word "cretin" is derived from "chretien" (Christian).

  45. ShadowFox said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    The line, "That's might white of you!" pops up in at least two Clint Eastwood films (can't recall which ones, at the moment), but each time sarcastic with respect to faux-generosity.

    Fielding used "Christian" somewhat mockingly as well and on more than one occasion. At one point, in Tom Jones, he makes one of the less savory characters identify "civilization" with Christianity and then Protestantism, is sequence. Perhaps I'll track down the quote later.

  46. John Cowan said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    Jonathan Gress-Wright: Almost all North Americans flap t/d, but only a minority of us have Canadian Raising.

  47. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    @John Cowan:

    I thought Canadian raising was when both /ay/ and /aw/ were raised, which is supposed to happen only in Canada (hence the name). Unless "Canadian raising" now means the raising of any upgliding low diphthong. Anyway, I suppose I've been too influenced by my residence in Philadelphia and forgotten my upbringing on the West Coast, where indeed there is no raising of the upgliding low diphthongs. Thank you for the correction.

  48. davep said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cretin

    Origin:
    1770–80; < French; Franco-Provençal creitin, crestin human being, literally, Christian (hence one who is human despite deformities)

  49. Anonymous said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

    I'm with Felix, although my definition is slightly different. In my community* growing up, kids said things like, "she's so white" or "that's such a white thing to say" as a definite insult.

    Being "white" meant, roughly, someone who doesn't know anything about minorities or immigrants, and not only do they not know anything but they don't even bother to think about the experience of nonwhites, and doesn't have any idea how ignorant and insensitive they really are. The kind of people who say things like, "Life was better in the 1950s." (Er, for who? Not for black people under Jim Crow.) As I recall, some (not all) of the white kids I grew up with did not appreciate that term and I stopped using it after high school (partly because it began to feel uncomfortably like a racial slur and partly because I met a lot of people after high school who were shockingly ignorant about minorities and immigrants but who were nonetheless nice people, willing to be educated, and I decided that ignorance without malice did not really deserve insults.)

    *I grew up in the LA area in the 90s, and my community had about equal numbers of whites and Asians (around 35% each), followed by Latinos (maybe 20-25%), a small number of African-Americans (maybe 5%) and rather a lot of people who were "other" or multiracial. I would guess that about 75% of us (including many of the white kids) were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

  50. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

    @davep

    I always wondered about that etymology. I suppose it is similar to the other uses of "christian" that Mark and others have recorded here, in which "Christian" seems to be identified with "human". The best explanation I can think of is that, in a society where practically everyone is baptized in infancy and raised as a Christian, "Christian" came to mean "human being". Or instead, it could be that, conscious of the professed brotherhood of all Christians in the Church, anyone of the baptized, no matter how obviously imbecilic, was to be treated as a brother. In any case, that's a good example of a use of "christian" which clearly does not refer to a particular kind of behavior or character.

  51. Ron Kephart said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

    Away back in 1970 I was teaching at a southern private school for wealthy white boys. One day I told a class that I wasn't giving any homework, and one of the boys said "that's very white of you, Mr. Kephart."

  52. G. said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

    I have to say I really really appreciate this post. I've only ever encountered the expression in the Bertie Wooster books and I interpreted "white" exactly the way KH did, as a quaint abstraction for "good." Good thing I never tried to revive that particular bit of slang….

  53. bv said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 2:46 am

    While browsing elsewhere [Skullsinthestars “Why is water considered ghost-proof?” (1884) http://skullsinthestars.com/2011/02/13/why-is-water-considered-ghost-proof-1884/#more-4842, I noted a quote from Science in 1884:

    The things that one sees among the Indian tribes who have not become so ‘white’ as the Algonkins and the Iroquois, but who present a more genuine picture of old American life, …

  54. chris said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    What's interesting is that the analogous use of "Christian" to describe the same quality arose in British society before there was a significant non-Christian population.

    I think this would surprise a number of British Jews. Non-Christian population doesn't have to come from immigration.

    For my money, both terms are equally offensive to the group considered incapable of proper behavior.

    P.S. Also, it seems historically possible that Englishmen of a certain time period considered Catholics not "really" Christian.

  55. jtradke said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    Interesting bit of convergence with my pop-culture absorption from this past weekend. I've been laid up with a head cold for a couple days and decided to re-watch Joss Whedon's sci-fi oater TV series Firefly. The characters' dialect is firmly rooted in old frontier slang and idioms (with a generous helping of Chinese profanity), and I noticed at least two instances of "mighty white of you" in the dialog. Subconsciously I wondered if the phrase had racial origins, promptly forgot about it, and yet Language Log comes through with the answer!

  56. Harold said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    It is my understanding that the association of white with purity and superiority got a boost in the 18th century when the art historian Winkleman laboring under a mistaken notion that Greek sculpture had been dazzling white, exalted the color. After the French revolution women wore white in imitation of antique Greek and Romanstatues, which most people knew only from white plaster reproductions.

    White had always been associated with spotless cleanliness and was especially prestigious because only the more wealthy classes could afford freshly ironed and laundered white linen underwear, shirt collars, and nightgowns. Women were supposed to stay indoors and avoid the sun, to show that they didn't have to work in the fields.

    Dante envisions God as a white rose (with a yellow center).

    In Bellini's I Puritani (set in 17th c), Elvira tries on her wedding dress and sings "I'm a charming virgin, humble and white, dressed as a bride", the Bride of Lammermoor (early 18th c. setting) also wears white in the climactic scene, but it is her nightgown. I believe the custom of brides wearing white is a late nineteenth century one. Of course the Druids are depicted as white robed, as were the members of the Roman senate and upper classes generally (don't know what they really wore, trousers?).

  57. David Walker said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    "Spell Me Jeff": I was drawn to your second paragraph, and was amused to read that you heard those phrases until you left the 60s and 70s in the 80s. An interesting thing to do. Then I read your first paragraph and figured out what you meant (you were clear, it was my reading that was off).

    I lived briefly in part of the Old South until I could stand the racism and narrow-mindedness no more.

  58. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    Are Italians White?
    I remember overhearing a dispute on that very question among my sons and some of their friends when my sons were teenagers. After a while I asked them, "What about Portuguese?" On that point there was a consensus; Portuguese are not white. I believe the difference was due to the fact that, in Hartford at least, a typical ethnic Portuguese was many fewer generations removed from the old country than a typical ethnic Italian was.

  59. Brett said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    One phrase that really bothers me, coming from British English speakers is "Christian name." The implicit assumption Christianity gets to me, a lot. I have also come across the usage in older American writing, but it seems to be long gone as a major variant–replaced by "first name" or, if you want to be more formal, "given name."

    (And I should mention that there's a cheer-worthy scene about this in the truly terrifying movie "Escape From Sobibor.")

  60. Jonathan said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    Regarding the use of 'Christian' in Britain, my reading has been that it arose out of the western European conflict with the Turks, and gained further currency with the rise of the Victorain empire.

  61. Scott M. said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    Kind of implies some whole other meaning to the chorus "Play that funky music white boy!"

    Sorry, just had to be said…

  62. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    For an apparently uncontroversial use of "white" to indicate "good," see the front page of today's N.Y. Times, which has the headline "Texas Still Has Its Rustlers, and Men In White Hats Chasing Them."

    @chris: The current Jewish population of the UK is said by wikipedia to be about 0.5% of the country's total population. It might have been as high as 1.0% earlier in the 20th century (since it has not grown as fast as the population as a whole), but I'm not sure what your cut-off is for "significant." The percentage of infants in England proper baptized in the C. of E. (which does not capture other sorts of Christian) is now down around 20%, but was (according to the first source I googled up) 75% as of 1933. One way or another, a quite overwhelming majority of the pre-WW2 population of the U.K. was made up of at least nominal Christians. Since the increasing percentage of the population made of of adherents of non-Christian religions has coincided with the massive collapse of church attendance and even nominal/cultural Christianity among the old non-recent-immigrant population, it would be interesting to see whether the influence of those two factors could be disentangled in terms of causing any decrease of turns of phrase that implicitly assume that more or less everyone is a Christian.

  63. Rodger C said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright: Since David Fried hasn't replied, yes, you're right about "algarabia."

    The late folklorist Leonard Roberts collected a number of Appalachian stories about, e.g., "the two white men and the Irishman."

  64. Alec said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    In my youth in Northern Ireland I remember hearing the comment "that's a bit more protestant-looking, now", used of a classroom that had been cleaned and tidied up.

  65. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:

    Thanks for replying to chris for me. You raise some interesting questions that relate to my response below.

    @Brett:

    When I went to a private school in England in the 1990s, the teachers were still asking for our "Christian names". After I little double take I caught on to what they were asking me for. :)

    Brett mentions that there was a time in the US when "Christian name" was the ordinary term for "first" or "given name", at least going by older texts that he read. When did that cease? I actually remember that scene from the film "Escape from Sobibor", and I noticed that many of the actors spoke with British accents, which led me to think the film was targeted primarily to British audiences, who would be more likely to understand what was meant by "Christian name". I would imagine most Americans nowadays wouldn't even know what a "Christian name" was supposed to be. That film came out in the late 1970s, however: would a sufficient number of Americans then still have recognized the phrase "Christian name" in the meaning "given name"?

    Regarding the use of "white" to mean "pure" or "clean", maybe it's relevant that lighter skin in certain non-white cultures is seen as desirable or admirable (e.g. India). Are there any cultures where a relatively darker complexion is prized?

  66. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

    Along the lines of the ironic or reversed-valence use of "mighty white of you" mentioned by several commenters, I went back and did some googling to double-check my somewhat unsettling memory of having actually seen with my own two eyes a published article titled "Jews Are Not White." My memory was correct, and far from being a Klan/neo-Nazi sort of thing, this was in a well-left-of-center publication (the Village Voice, cover date 5/18/93) by a well-left-of-center (and Jewish!) author, namely Michael "Politics of Meaning" Lerner. The twist, of course, is that in the particular "progessive" political discourse of the relevant place and time this was apparently intended as a positive and philo-Semitic claim to make.

  67. Eric P Smith said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

    A story told of George Thomas, former Speaker of the House of Commons and by reputation a very good man, is that he was invited to speak at a meeting whose members were all black. He was introduced approvingly with the words, “We’re delighted that Mr Thomas is here to speak to us this evening. His skin may be white, but his heart is as black as any man’s.”

  68. Mark F. said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

    Aren't the ironic usage and the reversed-valence usage different things? If somebody says "that's mighty white of you" meaning (negatively) "that's so like a white guy", then it's hardly ironic.

    As for J. W. Brewer's comment about "white hats", of course that's just one of very many of those color associations. Black art, black magic, and whitewash are also related, although as I was trying to think of examples I realized that using white to mean "good" seems much less common than using "black" or "dark" negatively.

  69. anon. said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 4:08 am

    @ J. Gress-Wright,

    Yes, I remember the darker the more beautiful in Ghana, something that a man looked for in a woman. But in Tanzania lighter was better, enough that people in Dar didn't want to visit ancestral towns at high altitudes. I don't know if that's a colonial legacy (as it seems to be in Ivory Coast), or if it's parallel to the Asian situation where dark skin is associated with peasants working in the fields.

  70. Alan K. said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    For those interested in a large list of idioms which use color words across languages, you may be interested in a list I have compiled here:

    http://www.starchamber.com/colors/color-idioms.html

    Comment welcome.

  71. Vasha said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    Re: Wodehouse's use of the "white of you" expression in his caricatures of English speech: it's worth noting that Wodehouse spent a lot of time in the US and lived there permanently from the late 1940s on.

  72. Brett said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    I just had another encounter with a generalized use of "Christian," in this case apparently meaning something like "not secular," regardless of what religion was actually involved. I was talking to my neighbor (and older woman from Florida) and told her that my kids were going to summer camp at the local Jewish Community Center. She replied: "Oh, that's good. Good Christian activities, not like the city or county programs."

  73. GHendry said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright asks "Are there any cultures where a relatively darker complexion is prized?"

    Hollywood standards of beauty for starlets call for blonde hair and very tanned skin. This is common if not quite universal since some are able to achieve success in Hollywood without them.

    Interestingly enough the blonde hair and the tanned skin need not look natural. Obvious use of hair dye or chemical tan seems to be perfectly acceptable.

  74. language hat said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    That film came out in the late 1970s, however: would a sufficient number of Americans then still have recognized the phrase "Christian name" in the meaning "given name"?

    Definitely; I grew up in the 1950s and '60s, and to me "Christian name" is utterly unremarkable (except in contexts like this, where its remarkableness is remarked upon).

    [(myl) Ditto. I think it's still my default term for the category.]

  75. James said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    The term "christian name", current in Canada when I was young (I'm about 50) derives from the fact that the first name was given to a child on baptism.

  76. Yosemite Semite said,

    June 9, 2011 @ 1:39 am

    In the early 70s, I was living in Barcelona, Spain, sharing an apartment with a brother and sister from northern Catalonia. At one point some American friends of mine who were passing through Barcelona came over to the apartment. They were not Spanish speakers; the brother was not an English speaker — he spoke both castellano and català. After we English speakers started chattering away in English, the brother piped up to me, somewhat disgruntled, with "¡Habla cristiano!" Which I took to mean, "Speak Spanish!" in its concise form, or maybe in its intent "Stop speaking gibberish and speak something I can understand." (The Diccionario de la Real Academia Española gives both those senses.) That idiom certainly comes out of the eight centuries of domination of the Iberian peninsula by peoples from North Africa, largely Berbers, all called in Spain "moros." That opposition still lasts in the language in many places. A common dish of white rice and black beans is called "moros y cristianos." "Había moros y cristianos" means there was a big row, disagreement, fight. And more idioms of the same countervailing ilk.

  77. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    June 10, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    […] Language Log explored the origins of the phrase, “that’s mighty white of you” (which surprisingly did not always have to do with race); how language style matching may predict […]

  78. n. freely said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

    Going to call shenanigans here, we're most likely looking at two etymologies, from two cultures regarding the same phrase.

    I haven't read anywhere near enough to dismiss the claim made by the narrative that amongst members of the African-American community "that's mighty white of you" referred to behavior of the white man.

    however, the expression "that's mighty white of you" has been used in plenty of cases to mean "that's very fair/pure of you." The conflation of white and purity is much older than the 1890s. In 1704, Issac Newton publishes Opticks which for the first time establishes that "White" is not (as has been previously thought) an empty color and is instead all colors. The narrative of the nature's law [science] discourse runs heavily through political laden work in later-1700s America and it wouldn't be surprising to see such a phrase emerge.

    An example of such a usage can be found in part six of Miracle on Morgan's Creek readily accessible on Youtube. Despite the fact the scene is in a town completely deprived of racial diversity, the phrase is used by a police chief to thank a judge for illegally destroying a marriage certificate, the judge responds "that's alright, I just might call on you one day."

  79. Boardwalk Empire: 3.08 – “The Pony” | Grizzly Bomb said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

    […] on the show. Especially if she keeps using phrases like "in for a penny" and "mighty white of me" and telling Nucky that she "runs naked through the pages of the United States Criminal […]

  80. Hilda Lukavsky said,

    March 27, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

    The Wildrose released a statement saying that Flanagan would have no role with the party going forward. “There is no language strong enough to condemn Dr. Flanagan’s comments,” reads the statement.

  81. c flynn said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

    Early years (1940s) in the deep South. Mostly (1950s…)in the North.
    When searching for my car in an airport parking garage late at night 10 years ago, a young female black airport worker stopped, and said ahe would help find the car. My spontaneous
    reply was…"that's mighty white of you", My message was a sincere "thank you for your kindness". Then I realized that it might well be construed as a racial putdown. After an awkward few seconds (seemed much longer), we looked at each other, and
    both broke into laughter…it was evident, no foul, no need for a faux apology. We found the elusive vehicle, and parted with warm smiles.

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