Seeing Red

By Michele Callaghan, Manuscript Editing

I want to raise the proverbial red flag about what is happening to the color of the same name in recent years. First, the media stole the color red from the Left and gave it to the Republican Party, and now, the plain sandy-colored line that says “thus far and no further” has become a “red line” that the enemy cannot cross without incurring a stiff penalty.

Going at least as far back as the French Revolution, red has been the color of blood, martyrdom, communism, radicals, and the mob. For some reason, after the extremely tight race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, election map shorthand for who was leading in a given state resulted in red, blue, and even purple states. Does a “red-diaper baby” still mean that Mom and Dad were commie sympathizers, or that they registered for their little one at Harrods or Saks Fifth Avenue (or fill in the blank with other stereotypes about the party of the right)?

Ben Yagoda, in his Chronicle of Higher Education blog Lingua Franca, does an admirable job of expounding on the “thin red line” of British soldiers showing bravery in battle (which then was transformed into the “thin blue line” of valiant police officers putting their lives on the line for citizens everywhere). He discusses how this concept was conflated with the line in the sand somewhere along the way. This left us in our current predicament of daily comments about who did or did not say a red line was crossed and what it means for a politician or a country’s future.

It begins with red, but what’s next? Are we going to monkey with the metaphors of other colors? Would we make jealousy the blue-eyed monster instead of green? Would the proverbial poor stepchild be a brunette instead of a redhead? Should purple be the color for cowards and yellow the color for heroes?

As your resident editorial commentator, I ask you this: Do we owe it to our colors to give them precision of speech? You can guess that my answer is a resounding “yes.” Those few but dedicated readers of my blogs will recognize the theme of not mixing metaphors, and will recall that I advocated keeping the difference between magic and silver bullets. It is probably too late to stop the vast army of talking heads from their seemingly inexorable run to change the meaning of red, but it may not be too late to keep our other colors in from crossing the red line.


Filed under Behind the Scenes, Editing

5 responses to “Seeing Red

  1. Pingback: Seeing Red | jhublogs

  2. Glorious Being

    This reminds me of an essay by Mario Pei entitled “The language of color is NOT international”, in which he first discusses the various weird color metaphors current in different languages, e.g. in Russian, red is the color of beauty and life; the French call slang “green language,” etc. (It also comes out that in Mexico there was a right-wing party called the Reds.) Then he shows that names of colors don’t always align even in their literal signification, e.g. Welsh “glas” means blue, green, or grey”; Latin has two words for yellow, “flavus” and “fulvus”; while Bassa (spoken in Liberian, has “hui” (covering purple, blue, and part of green), and zi~za, for everything else, including (presumably light) green.

  3. Michele C.

    Fascinating! Thanks for adding this. I guess this shows that, along with no true international language, there is no international norm for color metaphors. But maybe it is not too much to hope that members of a given culture could honor its metaphors!

    Michele C.

  4. Dennis Callaghan

    I recommend a teriffic children’s book called The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, about crayons revolting against their stereotypical associations.

  5. Inglorious Being

    Crayons of the World, unite! You have nothing to lose but your crayon boxes!