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How green became green

The original Earth Day Proclamation in 1970 refers to “our beautiful blue planet,” and the first earth day flag consisted of a NASA photo of the Earth on a dark blue background. But the color of fields and forests prevailed, and today when we think of ecology and environmentalism, we think green not blue.

The connection of the color green to growing things is found in nature, of course, and the word green has “associations with verdure, freshness, newness, health, and vitality [that are] are widespread among the Germanic languages,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So in Old and early Middle English, we find forms of the word used to refer to the color of living vegetation, grass, and to grassy areas or leafy trees.

The meaning was extended to refer especially to tender or unripe vegetation and then more generally. The expression “green cheese,” for example, from the late fourteenth century, refers to cheese that still needed to be aged. The notion of green as unripe provided the basis for its later extension to people, so by the mid-sixteenth century, green could be used to refer to immaturity, rawness or inexperience.

In medieval and Renaissance literary symbology, green retained that sense of immaturity. Green became the color of young love as well, and sometimes of fickleness, and it was the color of both the sea and of fortune. Green was also associated with “greensickness,” referring to the jaundice of chlorosis, a type of anemia common in young women.

By William Shakespeare’s time, green had a variety of symbolic possibilities, and he used most of them in his plays. In Love’s Labor’s Lost Don Armando’s page Moth jokes with his master, who is discoursing on famous loves:

“Green became the color of young love as well, and sometimes of fickleness, and it was the color of both the sea and of fortune.”

Armando: O well-knit Sampson, strong-jointed Samson!…I am in love too. Who was Sampson’s love, my dear Moth?

Moth: A woman, master.

Armando: Of what complexion?

Moth: Of all the four, or the three, or the two, or one of the four.

Armando: Tell me precisely of what complexion.

Moth: Of the sea-water green, sir.

Armando: Is that one of the four complexion?

Moth: As I have read, sir, and the best of them, too.

Armando: Green indeed is the color of lovers; but to have a love of that color, methinks Sampson had small reason for it. He surely affected her for her wit.

Moth: It was so, sir, for she had a green wit. (I. ii. 72–89)

The four complexions mentioned are the four humors of Hippocrates and green refers to the phlegmatic type. The expression the “green wit” could indicate an immature wit or one that remains fresh, and Shakespeare is likely punning on the “green withs” or fresh vines with which Delilah bound Samson in the Biblical tale.

In other plays, Shakespeare used green to refer to youth (Cleopatra refers to “My salad days, when I was green in judgement”) or freshness (Claudius tells his court “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death, the memory be green”). When Lady MacBeth chides her husband for cowardice, she perhaps refers to the greensickness associated with young women:

“Was the hope drunke, Wherein you drest your selfe? Hath it slept since? And wakes it now to looke so greene, and pale, At what it did so freely?”

And of course, Shakespeare draws on an association of green with envy and jealousy, in expressions like “green-eyed jealousy” and “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

For writers like Shakespeare, the color green was full of potential, but it shows up in popular neology as well. In the nineteenth century, we find expressions like “greenhorn” with a first OED citation of 1824, referring initially to immature cattle then to inexperienced soldiers. The Civil War brought “greenbacks” for the paper money backed by government credit. In the early nineteenth century, red and green signals were used on railways for nighttime visibility, leading to the association of green and go.

The early twentieth century saw the gardening expression “green thumb,” from 1937, and by the 1960s the term “green revolution” was being used to refer to the transformation of agricultural practices for increased food production. From 1979 on, the green refers to environmentalism broadly, though sometimes writers would signal that they were using the word in a novel way by placing it in scare quotes.

The OED noted these new compounds over the last forty years: green fuel (1979), green-minded (1984), green-economy (1986), green marketing (1988), green consumerism (1988), green electricity (1989), green chemistry (1989), green audits (1989), and green burial (1991). The association of green with ecology is here to stay.

And to think, it might have all been blue. Happy Earth Day.

Featured image credit: “Green” by Silver Blue. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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