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A hue for every mood: See why it’s blue chip, red tape, yellow belly

ByAdam Jacot de Boinod
Dec 24, 2022 08:31 PM IST

In a new Wknd column, author Adam Jacot de Boinod unwraps mysteries relating to phrases of everyday use, and hunts down quirky parallels from around the world. Look out for Capital Letters every month.

We’re all familiar with the idea of a red herring, a blue ribbon, a black market. Indeed, colours infuse our day-to-day vocabulary without us even noticing. As familiar as they seem, they could do with some explanation. Here then are a few bright-hued idioms, decoded.

PREMIUM
Like Morse code, but with colours: Hues infuse our day- to-day vocabulary in ways we don’t often notice. (Shutterstock)

We all know that being tickled pink means to be extremely happy (normally from some surprise) but “in the pink” means to be in the best possible health and comes to us via Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, perhaps from the pink tinge of healthy cheeks or the pink colour of flowers favoured by Queen Elizabeth I. The playwright is also responsible for “whiter than white”, meaning innocent, pure and virtuous and coming from his poem Venus and Adonis, written in 1593, which has the line “teaching the sheets a whiter hew than white’; it then re-emerged in popularity from an advertising campaign 400 years later for Persil, the washing-powder manufacturer.

On to more states of being, a yellow belly, said of a cowardly person, is believed to allude to the way some animals roll over and act dead as a sign of surrender, exposing their off-white bellies. White feather, being a display of cowardice, refers to a gamecock with a white feather in its tail which was taken by traders and connoisseurs to be a sign of cross-breeding and lack of courage.

The idea of a black dog signifying depression can be traced to the World War 2-era British prime minister Winston Churchill; this is how he famously described the experience of this condition. But it was the Roman poet Horace in the 1st century BCE who perhaps linked the two ideas first, when he wrote that to see a black dog with her pups was a bad sign. A black dog has often since signified the devil, or the gates of hell.

Now to hues on paper, while a green-ink letter is one written to an editor or politician expressing eccentric views, a red-letter day refers to any day of special significance and originates from the days of the Roman Republic, when important dates were indicated on a calendar in red. The practice was then carried into medieval Catholic books, saints’ days and festivals which were all marked in red ink.

While we’re all familiar with the ideas of white-collar and blue-collar jobs, imaginative business writers have since added a number of categories:

- green-collar workers are environmentalists (since about 1984)

- pink-collar are secretaries and other clerical staff (1975)

- black-collar are miners (especially for coal) and oil workers (1998)

- gold-collar are professionals or those with in-demand skills (1985)

- grey-collar are skilled technicians, and employees whose job descriptions combine white- and blue-collar duties (1981)

Elsewhere in the working world, we spend our lives trawling through red tape, a term first recorded in the 16th century, when Britain’s King Henry VIII petitioned Pope Clement VII for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon with copious documents, and used red tape to secure the bundles.

A blue-chip company or share has a wide reputation for quality and reliability and derives from historic gaming houses, where blue-coloured pieces of wood were the most valuable chips.

Green shoots, being the signs of reviving activity, came from Norman Lamont in 1991; sadly, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer was being far too optimistic about the economy.

Meanwhile, from the golden handshake (a hefty sum paid on retirement) comes the idea of golden handcuffs, a promise of special perks and benefits if someone remains in their job.

Perhaps most engaging of all colour idioms is “white elephant”, which comes from successive kings of Thailand, who gave a white elephant to any courtier who irritated them. The animals were considered sacred and so had to be cared for well, and their maintenance was so expensive that anyone who was given one was inevitably ruined.

May your festive season be brighter-hued!

(Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the BBC series QI and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo. Starting this week, he will write monthly on quirky words from around the world)

We’re all familiar with the idea of a red herring, a blue ribbon, a black market. Indeed, colours infuse our day-to-day vocabulary without us even noticing. As familiar as they seem, they could do with some explanation. Here then are a few bright-hued idioms, decoded.

PREMIUM
Like Morse code, but with colours: Hues infuse our day- to-day vocabulary in ways we don’t often notice. (Shutterstock)

We all know that being tickled pink means to be extremely happy (normally from some surprise) but “in the pink” means to be in the best possible health and comes to us via Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, perhaps from the pink tinge of healthy cheeks or the pink colour of flowers favoured by Queen Elizabeth I. The playwright is also responsible for “whiter than white”, meaning innocent, pure and virtuous and coming from his poem Venus and Adonis, written in 1593, which has the line “teaching the sheets a whiter hew than white’; it then re-emerged in popularity from an advertising campaign 400 years later for Persil, the washing-powder manufacturer.

On to more states of being, a yellow belly, said of a cowardly person, is believed to allude to the way some animals roll over and act dead as a sign of surrender, exposing their off-white bellies. White feather, being a display of cowardice, refers to a gamecock with a white feather in its tail which was taken by traders and connoisseurs to be a sign of cross-breeding and lack of courage.

The idea of a black dog signifying depression can be traced to the World War 2-era British prime minister Winston Churchill; this is how he famously described the experience of this condition. But it was the Roman poet Horace in the 1st century BCE who perhaps linked the two ideas first, when he wrote that to see a black dog with her pups was a bad sign. A black dog has often since signified the devil, or the gates of hell.

Now to hues on paper, while a green-ink letter is one written to an editor or politician expressing eccentric views, a red-letter day refers to any day of special significance and originates from the days of the Roman Republic, when important dates were indicated on a calendar in red. The practice was then carried into medieval Catholic books, saints’ days and festivals which were all marked in red ink.

While we’re all familiar with the ideas of white-collar and blue-collar jobs, imaginative business writers have since added a number of categories:

- green-collar workers are environmentalists (since about 1984)

- pink-collar are secretaries and other clerical staff (1975)

- black-collar are miners (especially for coal) and oil workers (1998)

- gold-collar are professionals or those with in-demand skills (1985)

- grey-collar are skilled technicians, and employees whose job descriptions combine white- and blue-collar duties (1981)

Elsewhere in the working world, we spend our lives trawling through red tape, a term first recorded in the 16th century, when Britain’s King Henry VIII petitioned Pope Clement VII for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon with copious documents, and used red tape to secure the bundles.

A blue-chip company or share has a wide reputation for quality and reliability and derives from historic gaming houses, where blue-coloured pieces of wood were the most valuable chips.

Green shoots, being the signs of reviving activity, came from Norman Lamont in 1991; sadly, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer was being far too optimistic about the economy.

Meanwhile, from the golden handshake (a hefty sum paid on retirement) comes the idea of golden handcuffs, a promise of special perks and benefits if someone remains in their job.

Perhaps most engaging of all colour idioms is “white elephant”, which comes from successive kings of Thailand, who gave a white elephant to any courtier who irritated them. The animals were considered sacred and so had to be cared for well, and their maintenance was so expensive that anyone who was given one was inevitably ruined.

May your festive season be brighter-hued!

(Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the BBC series QI and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo. Starting this week, he will write monthly on quirky words from around the world)

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