‘Indian burn’: meaning and origin

A synonym of Chinese burn, the American-English term Indian burn designates an act of placing both hands on a person’s wrist or forearm and then twisting it to produce a burning sensation. This term occasionally occurs in extended use.

The allusion is to the fiendish methods of torture attributed to the ‘(Red) Indians’, i.e., the Native Americans.

The first two occurrences of Indian burn that I have found are from accounts of wrestling matches:

1-: A wrestling match between Tor Johanson and Tommy Rae—account published in the Binghamton Press (Binghamton, New York) of Wednesday 5th May 1937:

Tor really could handle himself. He was no Paddock on his feet, of course, but he moved around with surprising agility and grace for a big man. And, despite suffering severe punishment from Rae’s wrist grip and Indian burn—four minutes straight at one stretch—he threw the New Englander with a leg bend and body hold after 21 minutes and 20 seconds.

2-: A wrestling match between Juanita Coffman and Judy Kawal—account published in the Estherville Daily News (Estherville, Iowa) of Friday 4th April 1952:

Full blooded Oklahoma Indian, Juanita went on the warpath after Kawal, from Canada, performed an Indian rope trick by suspending and unending Juanita in the ring ropes. Judy managed to hang Juanita in the rope upside down for two minutes but paid for her tactics as Juanita developed rope and Indian burn and dropkicked the blonde Canadian out of the ring and into the laps of several gentlemen who were not too pleased acting as breakfalls for Judy.

The term then occurs in the following passage from The Lion and the Honeycomb (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954), by Siegel Fleisher:

In an instant he was across the distance between them with his hands on Otto’s wrists.
“All right, drop it or I’ll break your arm.”
Otto’s hat tumbled to the ground and he gave it a gratuitous kick into the shadows. He twisted Otto’s wrist in an Indian burn.

The variant Indian wrist burn occurs in “Where Did You Go?” “Out.” “What Did You Do?” “Nothing.” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1957), an evocation of childhood by the U.S. author Robert Paul Smith (1915-1977):

There was the Indian Wrist Burn. This consisted of grabbing another kid’s wrist in one’s two hands, placed close together. One hand twisted clockwise, the other counter. It hurt like hell.
There was the Indian Scalp Burn. This was done by placing the palm against the newly haircutted back of another kid’s neck and pushing up against the grain.
There was old-fashioned arm-twisting, frog-marching, there was The Drill, the Hammerlock, the Toe Lock, there was a charming thing called Punching the Muscle. This was simple. This involved a series of punches, as hard as possible, in the muscle of the upper arm until a kind of paralysis set in.

The term occurs in the following passage from The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford University Press, 1959), by the English folklorists Iona Opie (1923-2017) and Peter Opie (1918-1982):

Less dangerous [than twisting a person’s arm round until it hurts], but equally painful, is a ‘Chinese burn’, also known as ‘Chinese torture’ and ‘Chinese twist’ (in the United States ‘Indian burn’ or ‘Indian torture’), in which the perpetrator clenches the victim’s wrist with both hands and ‘twists both ways at the same time, like wringing the dish cloth’.

A figurative use of Indian burn occurs in the review of Amazons: An intimate memoir by the first woman ever to play in the National Hockey League (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980), a novel by ‘Cleo Birdwell’, pseudonym of the U.S. author Donald Richard DeLillo (born 1936)—review by Roger Director, published in the Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas) of Sunday 14th December 1980:

The humor is an Indian burn of the mind, the observations of straight, sharp, what-the-hell Cleo rubbing against the phony hurly burly of the big-bucks entertainment monolith and the glitzspeak of the overstuffed weirdos who constantly are taking runs at her in the book.

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