"Free, white, and twenty one"

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Sometimes I think that Philip K. Dick is passing the time in purgatory by ghostwriting news stories like this one —  "Atlantic City's Revel Casino reimagined as elite school", Reuters 9/22/2014:

A Florida developer who made a $90 million offer for Atlantic City's shuttered Revel Casino wants to use the site to help end world hunger, cancer, and resolve other pressing issues like nuclear waste storage.

Glenn Straub's plan is ambitious as it is high-minded. First, he would add a second tower to the 57-story structure, completing the original vision of the casino-hotel's developers. The businessman, who owns the Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club, would then convert the complex into a university where the best and brightest young minds from across the world could work on the big issues of the day.

But this is Language Log, not Eccentric Developer Log, so read on to get to the linguistic point:

"We want people who will cure the world of its hiccups," said Straub in an interview, his ideas for Atlantic City spilling out in his rapid-fire manner.

Revel, which cost $2.4 billion to build and opened just two years ago, closed September 2 after failing to draw bids at a bankruptcy auction.

Sure, the globe's largest corporations may eventually lure away some of his students, he conceded, but "we'll make them donate 2 percent of their incomes for their lifetimes," to help fund the project. He did not elaborate or say how the university would be financed otherwise.

 His ideal student would be "free, white and over 21," he said, using a politically incorrect way to describe someone with no financial obligations.

Actually, I believe that the phrase "free, white, and twenty one" means something more like "free and responsible for his or her own choices". The OED glosses it as "that is an independent adult who can engage in any activity not prohibited by law; that is a free agent". A discussion here translates it as "I can do what I want and no one can stop me", and finds it in an 1856 novel, where a young women uses it as an ironic cry of mock liberation:

35 years ago, my own introduction to this obnoxious expression came from a woman — call her X — who used it in a rather more serious sense.

A young Japanese researcher — call him Y — had come to the U.S. for a year, to visit the lab where I worked at the time. Since the lab was located in a rural/suburban area, he needed a car, and X, who worked in the same place, had one to sell. It made a kind of grinding noise, which worried him, but X explained that American cars are often like that, so Y went ahead and bought it, for a price on the high side of the blue-book value.

After a couple of days, the vehicle ground to a complete halt, and when Y had it towed to a local garage, the mechanic explained that the transmission was totally shot, and would need to be replaced, for a cost greater than the value of the car.

Y was mortified, since among other things he had no more money. So I went to talk to X, whom I knew. She was quite up front about the situation, explaining that she had not offered any sort of guarantee of the vehicle's condition, and that Y was, in her words, "free, white, and twenty one".

I mentioned Y's inadequate information about used-car transactions in the U.S., his naive trust that a co-worker would not cheat him, etc., and for my pains I got a lecture about libertarian politics and a recommendation to read Ayn Rand on the virtue of selfishness.

Update — some other coverage of the hypothetical Revel re-make…

Francis Hilario, "Revel bidder wants to build a university 'for geniuses' on property", Philadelphia Business Journal:

Glenn Straub, who made a cash bid for the $2.4 billion casino under his legal entity Polo North Country Club Inc., said he's planning on building a tower more than 30 stories tall at the Revel property that will host to “some of the smartest people in the world," according to the Press of Atlantic City.

“The university’s going to go in,” Straub told the paper. “It’s going to be for geniuses.”

He also talked of a high-speed ferry and railway systems — including an "underground passageway" — that's in line with an earlier interview with USA Today, where Straub said he hoped to rebuild Atlantic City's image, which includes adding high-speed rail links with New York City and Philadelphia.

Nothing yet about the spaceport.

The university plan apparently emerged within the last week — "Revel bidder: Distress is his business", Philadelphia Inquirer 9/13/2014:

Straub was circumspect about what he would do with the Revel property if his bid turns out to be the winner in an auction scheduled for Sept. 24, subject to court approval at a hearing Monday.  

"We're going to be doing six, seven more things there. If it makes money, that's good. Pat us on the back. If it doesn't make money, then we close her down just like Miami Arena and we blow it up," Straub said.

The Press of Atlantic City ran a poll — "Maverick real estate developer and polo enthusiast Glenn Straub envisions a think tank at the former Revel Casino-Hotel to address global problems. Is a tower of geniuses a good idea?"

Steve Larson at Legal US Poker Sites has all the angles covered — "Glenn Straub Plans to Build a University Campus Adjacent to Revel Casino & Hotel":

Glenn Straub, who placed a $90 million bid in bankruptcy court on Revel Casino, said he plans to place an educational center on the land next to the old casino site. Straub is the head of a Florida property development group which previously said it makes communities better.  

When news first got out that Glenn Straub had placed a bid on the Revel Casino, he was a bit canny about the nature of his business project. He hinted that the Revel Hotel and Casino would not be used for gambling, but would not say exactly what his group’s plans were. Early speculation was Straub would build a railway hub that would link to New York City and Philadelphia.  

He told NJ.com on Friday that he planned to build a 35-story tower next to Revel’s hotel that would house a university. He did not mention a name for that university, or the main focus of its curriculum. What he did say about his plans are grandiose.  

Alex Napoliello of NJ Advance Media paraphrased Glenn Straub saying that he wants to create “a community of the world’s brightest people”. These people would work on global issues. The example of a global issue Straub listed was nuclear waste disposal.

I'm pretty sure that this is all part of an unpublished Philip K. Dick novel.



  1. Robot Therapist said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:23 am

    I have never heard this expression.

  2. D.O. said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:34 am

    You might be glad that Y referred you to Ayn Rand, not Nietzsche.

    [(myl) X was the libertarian, Y was the visiting Japanese researcher. I probably should have used more memorable pseudonyms.

    Anyhow, Nitzsche is (these days) more likely to be the patron saint of left-wing creeps than right-wing ones.]

  3. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    Never heard of this, which is probably not surprising as I expect it's a USAism.

    It immediately shed light for me on the last line of John Berryman's Dreamsong #40: "free, black & forty-one."

  4. Lane said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:48 am

    This is why Ayn Rand fans only date each other.

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:53 am

    I don't suppose the poor things have much choice. I haven't found it necessary to forbid my daughter to marry one.

  6. Mark F. said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    David Eddyshaw, I'm certain you're right that it's a US expression, but it seems (thankfully) rare. I've never heard it in my 48 years spent mostly in the former Confederacy.

  7. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    I've known the phrase to be a statement of autonomy and capacity and, like Mark F, I have not heard it anywhere in the South. I did hear it from a fellow student in his home Northern town I was visiting while in college. I am surprised it dates from at least 1856, and somewhat pleased it was not an offspring of the civil rights struggles.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    Y's experience (except for the possibly jocular undertow) puts one in mind of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honorary_whites#Japanese. Google books doesn't seem to have an earlier cite than the 1856 one above, which is slightly peculiar since it sounds (perhaps misleadingly, though?) from context as if the young lady is mouthing an already-established cliche, but with an ironic undertow given that the paradigmatic "free, white and 21" autonomous/self-reliant American is presumptively male.

    (The age at which a young lady had a very specific sort of autonomy in that she could marry, perhaps ill-advisedly, without her parents' express permission and indeed over their vociferous objection is probably a significant plot point in many 19th century novels – I expect that age varied somewhat by time period and jurisdiction and I wouldn't expect it was necessarily or consistently 21.)

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

    Those wondering what PKD is up to in the afterlife might be interested in A Kindred Spirit, by ej Morgan (FD: a friend of a friend of mine). I thought it was okay but no Timothy Archer.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    I grew up in the South, mid-last century. This was a common expression among whites. Fortunately, it seems to have died along with Jim Crow, segregation and the like.

  11. djw said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    George W, yeah, it was common in Texas in probably the Sixties, but I haven't heard it used much lately. Maybe since the legal age for lots of stuff is now 18, we just don't fee the same giving those tots the "privilege" 21 gave the college crowd. Regardless, with the slur, we didn't lose much.

  12. Chris Henrich said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    I am nowhere near being a fan of Ayn Rand, but I do hope she meant something less shabby by "the virtue of selfishness."

  13. Bathrobe said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

    That sounds like an expression more appropriate to a bygone age. Was X really using this without any consciousness of irony?

    Another expression that I've always found incongruous is 'blue-eyed boy'. I realise that it isn't American, but could it conceivably be used of a non-white? :) I think that the equivalent 'golden boy' is better since it doesn't refer to any identifiable racial features.

    Quite off on a tangent here, I was once talking to a black American in Chinese (in China) when I mischievously referred to some white Americans on campus as his 同胞 tóngbāo. This is usually translated as 'compatriot' but literally means 'of the same womb'. He quite seriously replied, '他们不是我的同胞' (They are not my tóngbāo).

  14. Steve said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    I'm a USian who's never heard of "free, white, and twenty one" before. (FWIW, I'm 40ish and grew up in Southern California.) I initially took Straub's phrase to be compositional (and more or less literal).

    Is it possible that Straub, and/or others who use it, have reanalyzed "white" to have a non-racial meaning? I doubt it, somehow… (Cf. "mighty white of you", an overtly racist expression but one that I could more easily imagine being reanalyzed to have a non-racial meaning.)

  15. JW Mason said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 6:02 pm

    In Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, set in early-1980s Texas, the protagonist Moss tells his wife, "You're free white and 21 so I reckon you can do anything you want." I don't think the line occurs in the movie.

  16. Felix said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

    I (northern California) hear the phrase once or twice a year, almost always sarcastically, as in "You're an adult, what's stopping you?" but never in support of fraud.

  17. Mark Wilkens said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 7:43 pm

    I have never heard this specific combination as a phrase, though it definitely jumped out at me as a archaic expression of autonomy.

    It does not surprise me to find a reference back to 1856. If you add "male," free, white and 21 would have essentially been the qualifications for voting in the era between Andrew Jackson, when political participation became more egalitarian (universal male suffrage) and aftermath of the Civil War, when African American men gained the franchise (de jure, if not ultimately de facto).

    A curious feature of the phrase is that you would generally think putting "free" and "white" in the same phrase would be redundant. This makes me wonder if the phrase might be some archaic holdover from era of white indentured servitude, which was common before the Revolution and largely died out in the early-1800s. I have a vague recollection that in at least some cases a juvenile indentured servant would gain their freedom when they reached the age of twenty-one.

    All of this begs why a grown adult in the year 2014 would utter such a phrase – time-traveller, maybe?

  18. GeorgeW said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

    "A curious feature of the phrase is that you would generally think putting "free" and "white" in the same phrase would be redundant."

    I always interpreted this to mean free in a political sense, i.e. living in a democracy vs some authoritarian form of government.

  19. John said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

    I certainly heard the phrase in New England during the 1950s-60s. It was another way of saying, "There's nothing stopping you." The nothings included referred to laws restricting those of certain age, color, and status, all disabilities toward freedom of action.

  20. DCA said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

    Another data point, I heard this used in the OED sense (with a slight tinge of sarcasm) once in the late sixties by someone with a midwest and California background. Never before or since. This stuck with me because it was so obviously antique (to say the least).

  21. Jim said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

    I have heard this expression before. I'm in my mid-40's and grew up in NY & NJ. I recall my mother- also from NY- saying it to me in an ironic way after I graduated college. I would be surprised to hear it out of anyone's mouth today.

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 9:21 pm

    Do you have the expression 'sold as seen' in the States?

    I'd never heard it until a couple of years ago, when I sold a car at auction that had a faulty gearbox. I was advised to list it as 'sold as seen', which seems to basically mean 'at your own risk'. But even that seemed to me essentially dishonest when you know there's something bad enough wrong with it to cost a couple of grand.

    This year I took a risk on a 'sold as seen' one and got lucky – it's in perfect condition. So it clearly doesn't always mean the worst.

    Anyway, I want to know what happened to Y. Did he just have to abandon the car or did some kind-hearted linguist Z help him out?

  23. maidhc said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

    I may have heard that expression once or twice, but the only one I remember is that Ruby Keeler used it in some Busby Berkeley movie. I always took "free" to mean not being in jail.

    The story about the unfortunate Y is based on some cultural differences. I believe that there are great disincentives to buying a used car in Japan. As a result a lot of used cars are shipped out of Japan to New Zealand (a country that drives on the left and has no domestic automobile production), and more recently to Afghanistan, whence they are smuggled into Pakistan.

    Ever since I was old enough to drive, starting in drivers' ed, I've had it drummed into me never to buy a car from a private party without a mechanic's inspection. But evidently this is not done in Japan, I suppose because buying a used car is not as common there.

    I've become interested in old film cameras, as a hobby which you can pursue on a low budget. It's interesting what people have to say. Some people say "The lens is clear and the shutter seems to work". (Implied: "…but I'm not going to invest in putting a roll of film through it") A lot of ads say "I have no way to test cameras". (Implied: "…and that includes opening it up and looking inside while I press the button") Or "sold for decoration". Now clearly an old camera that's recently been cleaned and serviced would sell at a premium price. But a lot of the "no way to test" people ask a price that's very close to the price for a serviced camera. The "seems to work" crowd generally offer better prices. And there are a few honest "doesn't work, sold for parts" ads too.

  24. Chuck said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    I'm certainly familiar with the term–heard it recently used by someone from Oklahoma. Definitely archaic, I would avoid the term for fear of giving offense. Having said that, the expression is not borne of racial animus. It proceeds from the assumption that there are inequalities in the treatment of the races and, well, it stops right there. As Americanisms go, "Indian giver" is clearly worse to my ears. Free and white do overlap a lot. But before the Civil War "free" blacks endured much de jure discrimination, and afterwards the newly- and ostensibly-free blacks were of course subjected to varieties of social and legal mistreatment. So there's arguably a role for both free and white. Plus, the triad is more poetic.

  25. Chuck said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    I'm certainly familiar with the term–heard it recently used by someone from Oklahoma. Definitely archaic, I would avoid the term for fear of giving offense. Having said that, the expression is not borne of racial animus. It proceeds from the assumption that there are inequalities in the treatment of the races and, well, it stops right there. As Americanisms go, "Indian giver" is clearly worse to my ears. Free and white do overlap a lot. But before the Civil War "free" blacks endured much de jure discrimination, and afterwards the newly- and ostensibly-free blacks were of course subjected to varieties of social and legal mistreatment. So there's arguably a role for both free and white. Plus, the triad is more poetic.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 11:37 pm

    I've known "free, white, and twenty-one" for a long time, but maybe just from books. I always thought it meant "suitable for marriage" (or sex) (with a white person). "Free" meant "not married or engaged", "white" was required when miscengenation was illegal, and twenty-one was old enough to make one's own decisions. The young woman in the 1856 book is clearly worried about not getting married and has just had a painful conversation with the man she loves.

    However, here is one from a man that clearly means he's a responsible adult and doesn't need to be afraid.

    Pflaumbaum: The American seller's phrase I know for "buy at your own risk" is "as is".

  27. Joshua said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 12:44 am

    The pseudonyms appear to have been confused at one point; it would have been Y, the buyer, who had the car towed to a local garage, not X, who had already sold it.

  28. Kiwianna said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 3:58 am

    The only place I have encountered this phrase is in Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" (1949), in jocular reference to the sexual maturity of pine trees:"My 13-year-old reds first bloomed this year, but my white have not yet bloomed; they adhere closely to the Anglo-Saxon doctrine of free, white and twenty-one". I had always assumed that the phrase referenced English common law and the age of majority, but I think Mark Wilkens raises some good points about American suffrage.
    Here in NZ, 'Twenty-first' parties are a *big* deal – your parents host, all your relatives come and there are speeches. An oversized key is a common gift. American 21st birthdays are about the ability to (legally) drink alcohol, but the drinking age is 18 in NZ. It is clearly a much more general rite of passage.

  29. GeorgeW said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 5:16 am

    There are several hits in the NYTimes for the expression. A number are in reference to a film by that name. One says, "Reviewing Mr. Buchanan's 1963 blaxploitation-film-cum-courtroom-drama "Free, White and 21," which told the story of an interracial rape . . ."

    In this, I learned a new word – "blaxploitation."

  30. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 6:04 am

    For what it's worth, I used to know a bartender who phrased it as "free, white, and three times seven."

  31. Chips said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 6:34 am

    Forget everything else on this or other Comments, but for me there is a delirious joy in Language Log, and ensuing comments!

    On the "free white and 21", both my Australian parents would use it as a semi-sarcastic response to more or less anyone who did something stupid, but who justified their action along the lines of "It's OK, I'm free, white and 21". This was back in the '60s, maybe into the early '70s, by which time the epithet would have obviously carried with it racist overtones and would have dropped out of usage, even in Australia.

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 9:47 am

    The voting interpretation is a bit odd given the application of the phrase to females who generally could not vote before the 20th century, and the fact that the phrase seems to have come into greater currency after 1870 (and there are hits treating it as a well-established idiom from the first decade or so after 1870 when the massive Jim Crow disenfrachisement of blacks had not yet been carried through and they did vote in substantial numbers in at least some parts of the south, not to mention most if not all parts of the north (where they were less numerically significant and thus less of a political force, although see http://www.academia.edu/541804/_Whenever_They_Judge_It_Expedient_The_Politics_of_Partisanship_and_Free_Black_Voting_Rights_in_Early_National_New_York on the complex and contested history of free black voting rights in early 19th century New York during the period when slavery was being gradually phased out).

    One internet claim is that the set phrase came from the criteria by which foreign immigrants to the U.S. (both male and female) could be naturalized. From the first federal statute on the subject in 1791 a candidate needed to be a "free, white person" — there was a separate provision saying the children-under-21 of a newly naturalized citizen automatically became (if they were physically resident in the U.S. at the time) citizens themselves – the text isn't clear as to whether an immigrant under 21 whose parents were dead or still in Europe could get naturalized on his own and I don't know how that worked in practice. Presumably "free" was not thought redundant to white as of 1791, perhaps because indentured servitude was not completely extinct. Blacks (but not non-white immigrants from Asia) became eligible for naturalization in 1870, but that was done by sticking in a special provision elsewhere rather than removing the "free, white" language.

  33. Terry Hunt said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    Contra the suggestions of this being a USA-ism, as a (white) British youth (i.e. in the 1960s–1970s) I heard it used routinely in a private or family context by those of my parents' generation; it would rarely be used in the presence of strangers, however (and certainly not in the presence of anyone non-white) to avoid possible offense. Possibly it was adopted from some particular US movie, as catchphrases often were in post WW2 Britain. My personal perception is that it fell out of common use around the end of the 70s.

    It was always used with a degree of irony, and did not to my ears carry any deliberate racist implications, merely a pragmatic recognition that, historically and in then-current culture, non-white people were to some degree more circumscribed.

  34. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    Note also that "judgment of error" can be a technical phrase (meaning something wholly unlike "error of judgment") in some dialects of Anglo-American legalese, although it sounds decidedly archaic to my ear. Here's an example from a block quote from an earlier decision reprinted in a 1972 decision of the Alabama Court of Appeals: "If a judgment of error at this point depended upon a finding that the trial court intended or supposed that this part of its charge would have any effect on the course or result of the trial, there would be no hesitation in our denial of reversible error; but it is matter of common knowledge that jurors are very susceptible to the influence of the presiding judge." (If it's not clear from context to a non-lawyer readership, "judgment of error" here means something like "conclusion by an appellate court that some relevant aspect of a lower court's decision or judgment was erroneous and ought to be vacated or reversed."

  35. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    [Sorry, please delete comment above which I inadvertently stuck into the wrong thread initially.]

  36. J. L. Barnes said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

    My first exposure to the phrase was in this brief tune about racial tension in 1968 America (from the perspective of a touring middle-class freaky English psychedelic musician): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3EQYVY27l8

  37. AntC said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

    Does "young, gifted and black" parallel free, white and twenty-one?

  38. TooManyJens said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 7:34 am

    Little House on the Prairie readers will have encountered this phrase, as Almanzo Wilder uses it to describe himself in The Long Winter. The context is a conversation in which he's telling his older brother that he can do whatever he want with his life.

  39. William Locke said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 10:08 am

    Another curious variation on the ever-excellent Scary-Go-Round, this one seems to have some kinship to #firstworldproblems:


    (Actually the strip above comes from his side project "New Bobbins")

  40. Andrew said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 10:08 am

    I first heard the phrase in an episode of the 1980s television series "Fame" (apparently the episode called "Beginnings"); the characters who heard it used recognized it as a racist expression.

  41. HotFlash said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 9:20 am

    Free white and 21 — having capacity to contract and to act autonomously, not requiring permission from another. Free is not slave, indentured, or, in the case of women, married. White is race, as blacks capacity to contract could be disputed, 21 is of legal age, not a minor. Also the title of a trashy movie from the '60's == http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057072/?ref_=fn_al_tt_5

  42. frosty said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

    Free white and 21 is an old Jim Crow term. White as in a white person who by definition had freedom of movement, voting rights, etc.

  43. Sybil said,

    September 28, 2014 @ 4:38 am

    I've heard my father use this phrase, but *never* without irony, and usually (almost always) adding the understood "male". [I.e. "Free, white, male, and 21."] He was born of southern parents in about 1930, grew up in Illinois and "upstate" NY, meaning the Bronx, or White Plains (not all that Upstate, but most of NY is, from Manhattan.). (I'm only approximating his age to give him a bit of anonymity.)

    It must also be said, my father said upon leaving the US Army in the mid 50's that he did so because the generals were talking longingly about their next war.

  44. nechaev said,

    September 28, 2014 @ 7:56 am

    i had always throught the phrase "free, white and twenty-one" dated to the electoral triumph of Andrew Jackson in 1828 and referred to the qualifications for citizenship – or voting rights. Namely that prior to Jackson – and ascendancy of "The [white] Common Man" – voting rights were based on property ownership, and that a significant portion of Americans were thus disenfranchised. Jackson himself was the child of indentured servants, as were many southern whites. I believe that the indentures averaged 7 years each, during which time did the 'servant' enjoy any political rights?

  45. DaveL said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

    Robert Sheckley, humorist and SF writer, had his protagonist in "Mindswap" (set in an interstellar future where "the lonely whine of the jetliner" was nostalgic) refer to himself as "free, gray, and thirty-one."

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