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Hue and cry, or the mystery of red gold

As a student, I read Homer in English and ran into the phrase wine-colored sea. At that time, I did not know that in Old English, waves were sometimes called brown and only wondered what kind of wine the Ancient Greeks drank. No one in my surroundings could enlighten me. Since that time, I have read many articles and books on the history of color perception and in 2014 even reviewed a treatise on this subject in Old Icelandic. I had already known that in old literature, the most exotic colors could describe the objects around us. I had also met two scholars specializing in the use of color words in old literature and was thus no longer a greenhorn. In this blog, our readers will find my posts on brown à propos in a brown study, at one time slang, later used even by Huck Finn (!), and today probably remembered mainly by speakers of British English (Agatha Christie often referred to Hercule Poirot being in a brown study), and gray ~ grey (the posts for 8 January 2014 and 24 September 2014).

Homer, a man of rare vision.
(British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

In addition to those essays, I have always wanted to write about the enigmatic phrase red gold. It is ubiquitous in Old Germanic and in Slavic poetry. For a long time, I have kept an article on this subject in my etymological database, and today I’ll retell it. My source is “The Semantic Puzzle of ‘Red Gold’” by Earl R. Anderson (English Studies 81, 2000, 1-13). There can be little doubt that the structure of the human eye has not changed since the days of Homer. It is unimaginable that such a dramatic event in the evolution of the human eye should have happened so recently. But even if there was any merit in that hypothesis, it would be unable to explain why gold was called red. Our characterization of color is a matter of culture, not physiology.

It is equally obvious that people can distinguish any number of hues. Also, sometimes oblique associations produce unexpected results. Thus, nearly everybody believes that livid means “red” because the only context in which we use livid is livid with fury (rage, anger). But livid means “bluish gray.” In Old Norse, the moon was once called red, and butter emerged as green. While studying English idioms, I failed to find an explanation of the phrase once in a blue moon. I have a long list of such curiosities, which should not be confused with obvious metaphors, such as green (= “young”) years.

For starters, in order to increase our puzzlement, let us bear in mind the fact that from a historical point of view gold (in Germanic and beyond) has the same root as the adjective yellow, rather than red. In Russian, it is rudá “ore” (with cognates elsewhere in Slavic) that shares the root with Germanic red (which makes sense). And yet gold, not ore, in defiance of common sense and etymology, was called red.

This is ocher.
(Marco Almbauer via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Some investigators believed that the phrase red gold was a mere poetic convention. Sure enough, this phrase functioned as a formula, but gold was often called red also in prose. Moreover, the formula did not die with the demise of old alliterative poetry. The locution bothered no one even in thirteenth-century rhyming texts (Old Germanic poetry depended on alliteration and the rhythmic patterns that did not outlive the oldest period; with one exception, it did not rhyme). Gold in the Middle Ages, it has also been argued, was often alloyed with copper, resulting in reddish coloration. However, it is improbable that such a similarly unimportant fact could engender a standard, universally accepted formula.

Long-lived and stable is also the notion that color words in old languages referred to brightness, rather than hues: supposedly, red gold meant “bright gold.” According to this notion, white, brown, and fallow (I am citing the modern forms of the Old English adjectives) also emphasized the sheen produced by the objects described. In addition to Earl R. Anderson’s objection, I wonder why Old English (and many other Germanic and non-Germanic languages) needed so many color words to refer mostly to brightness. Red, as Anderson notes, was applied in Old English to boundary stones, cliffs, ditches, a ridge, a path or road, a wallow, a spring, a ford, and a pool. He draws an important conclusion: in all such cases, red evokes an earthen or mineral color. I’ll skip some other solutions whose discussion would require a detailed analysis of rather obscure arguments and mention only one more. Allegedly, very long ago, red referred to a covering exemplified by gilt, paint, and ocher dust. In the phrase red gold, we are told, the essential idea is that gold is a covering, with its chromatic value being secondary. This observation is true, but not all the occurrences of red in old texts can be explained with this reference.

Many happy returns of the day.
(Photo by PxHere, public domain)

Anderson concentrated his attention on the role of ocher in the history of civilization. “For Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures, ocher was just as important in the material culture as was the use of tools: the objects themselves, and knowledge of the technology associated with them, were preserved with care and passed from one generation to another.” He drew the conclusion that red was mainly earthen, mineral, or metallic in its focus, while yellow focused on the colors of vegetation and thus resembled green. For modern speakers, he continues, red evokes the idea of blood, while in olden times, it made people think of ocher. In old texts, blood was called red, among other things, but gold was always known as red. The paper ends on a note of caution: Anderson was fully aware of the difficulties of the theme he discussed. I find his reasoning most interesting but still wonder why gold has the same root as yellow. It may also be that I missed the subsequent discussion of the paper, though I have looked through the entire set of the journal in which it was published.

The purpose of this post is once again to call the attention of our readers to one of the most enigmatic questions of culture, namely, the use of color words in the history of civilization. What follows is an embarrassing anticlimax. Three times in the periodical Notes and Queries (in 1880. 1888, and 1927) and once in Scottish Notes and Queries (1905), the aforementioned idiom once in a blue moon was discussed. No hypotheses about its origin were proposed, except that the phrase might be coined as an example of an absurdity, like the “belief” that the moon is made of green cheese.  

Left: Cambridge Blue. Right: turquoise.

I hope that the roots of this odd phase run at least an inch deeper than that, but at the moment, I can reproduce only the following excerpt: “The Times of June 14 [1927] says in speaking of the delayed arrival of the monsoon at Bombay— ‘A curious and rare phenomenon was observed last night when the moon was seen to be distinctly blue. The Times of India says that the colour appeared to be between Cambridge blue and turquoise’. Can it be said that the expression ‘once in a blue moon’ has its origin in the rareness of this phenomenon?” The OED does not seem to have a pre-1833 citation. Thus, with this phrase we are certainly not in the Middle Ages, and one wonders why this idiom has become so well-known. Incidentally, idioms with blue are rather numerous. Perhaps some meteorologists among our readers will enlighten us on this subject. The OUPblog will repay their help with the red gold of eternal gratitude.

Featured image: The Fishpool Hoard, photo by Colin McLaughlin, British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Shayna Kravetz

    You note that most people know ‘livid’ only in the context of anger. But anyone working in the medical field will understand ‘livid’ to mean bluish-gray; it is the common term used for under-oxygenated areas of the body which lack the rosy glow of healthy flesh. You will occasionally find this usage in mystery novels as well, when describing a dead body.

  2. Kathleen Barnes

    When I read the Odyssey (in English) in high school, the phrase was translated as “the wine dark sea” I’m pretty positive of this. I have always heard it translated thus. Of course, since I’m 75, I probably read this translation, and subsequent references, long before you read yours.

  3. Sienna Shields

    Gold gleaming red in torch and candle light? Like fire itself….

    The many rose colored dawn references in Homer—— the crepuscular light on blue water—— often turning it wine/red…

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