English, the Colourful Language – You Don’t say by Ray Hudson Vol.100

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Ray Hudson

On this occasion of my 100th Column, I’d like to turn my attention to a horse of a different colour (or at least the language of different colours). We live in a world of colour, and it’s woven throughout our efforts to communicate between ourselves. Red communicates emotion, generally volatile, while pink and green are generally associated with health and growth. Many of our observations have found their way into our language as figures of speech. So, with the lights all green (like Kermit the Frog) we’ll explore those colours and the origins of the phrases. Let’s start with something red, something fish…

Red herring: Something that is a decoy to deflect or mislead people from finding the true issue or purpose they seek. In the early 1800’s hunters or woodsmen would seed a trail with kippers (red herring) to create a false trail for pursuing hounds or wolves to follow.

When someone discovers they’ve been duped by a red herring, they are likely to see red which is a term for becoming very angry, likely causing the blood pressure to rise dramatically and the face to puff up and become bright red as blood rushes to the skin. Thus the importance of getting them to cool off and let the blood pressure return to normal.

Red-eye: Not an aspect of seeing red, the term is applied to overnight flights such as leaving Vancouver late in the evening and landing in Toronto early the following morning. The red-eye part comes from not being able to sleep on the plane. The dry atmosphere of the plane combined with exhaustion leaves the traveler with bloodshot (red) eyes.

Red tape: Also something that might lead to seeing red. Red tape is a term applied to (often excessive) government rules and regulations. The term Red tape comes from the practice in Britain (back to at least the 16th century Tudor times) of binding legal documents in red ribbon or tape. Thus cutting through or removing regulations is truly ‘cutting through’ red tape.

White elephant: Refers to something that may be an extravagant yet burdensome gift or acquisition that you can’t easily dispose of; the new branch office turned out to be a white elephant. This term arose out of reality rather than analogy. The King of Siam would gift rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him. They wouldn’t dare get rid of them yet the King gets his revenge when the courtiers are ruined by the costs of keeping the white giants.

Green with envy goes farther back than when Mark Twain attributed the phrase to ‘being jealous’ in the late1800s. Today, it means one is envious or covetous of someone or something. As written in Wikipedia the term goes back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Great authors such as Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote of characters who were green with envy, or being bitten by the green-eyed monster (envy).

Since we’re all supposed to be going green, let’s check out the Green thumb: a person who has a gift for growing plants. It probably came from repeatedly handling clay pots encrusted with algae staining the gardener’s thumb and fingers green.

Other colours: In the pink: In a state of good health – this is good. Pink slip: a career cardiac disaster – not a good thing. Unlike the latter, however, the pink slip may become a Golden Handshake –this is (better than good) when the boss gives you mucho denaro to go away. Just watch for the Red Flags (warning signs) restricting you from competing with your former employer for five years. Of course if you’d earned enough Brownie Points: that is, ‘John earned a lot of brownie points for doing his boss’s report for him’ you might still be working for the man. Brownie points were earned for various achievements by the youngest Girl Scouts, called Brownies.

And that’s the Whiter Shade of Pale on the rainbow of colourful phrases imbedded in our language.

Go forth and practice your colourful language, as long as it’s not too blue, and remember what Kermit the Frog said, “It’s not easy being green.”