Week of February 2, 2020

Enough Alredy


Since the color red has been associated with communism since the 20th century, the expression “Better dead than red” connotes a firm rejection of communism, while “Better red than dead” showed more compromise, especially among Cold War-era opponents of nuclear weapons.


The first reference to a “red hand,” which you have when caught “red handed,” comes from a Scottish law from 1432. Unsurprisingly, the red was blood, which came from murder or poaching.


Did you ever “paint the town red” on some wild night? The likely origin of this one is fairly literal. Notorious drinker and hellraiser Marquis of Waterford led his drunken buddies through the town of Melton Mowbray in England one night in 1837, and after breaking windows and flowerpots, the raucous crew procured some red paint and redecorated several doors, a tollgate, and a swan statue. Once sobered up, they had to compensate the damaged town.


Long before Hollywood or modern politics, the tradition of famous or important people walking down a red carpet in formal events goes back to ancient Greece. One reason for the associations between the color red and prestige is that red dye was particularly difficult to make and therefore expensive.


Businesses operating at a loss are said to be “in the red.” This term goes back to the bookkeeping and accounting practice, first cited in 1907, of using red ink to denote financial loss. Conversely, financially solvent businesses are “in the black” for this color ink.


Bureaucratic fuss is implied by the term “red tape” because in the 16th century, Spanish king Charles V’s began the practice of tying rolls of important administrative documents with red tape, rather than another color, to indicate that they were more urgent and to be reviewed by higher-level officials.


The term “red herring” denotes a deliberately misleading clue or diversion. This was first used in literature in 1807 by journalist William Cobbett when he described using this pungent cooked fish (which turns from silver to red-brown with cooking) as a boy to distract hounds chasing the scent of a hare. The story was used as a metaphor for the press of the day, which had been distracted from covering essential domestic matters by false news of Napoleon’s defeat.