Posted by: Jack Henry | December 22, 2015

Editor’s Corner: Color Idioms, Day 1

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and a bunch of other holidays around here! I think we’re looking at the Winter Solstice on the 22nd, Festivus on the 23rd, Christmas Eve and Day on the 24th and 25th, and Kwanza on the 26th. That’s a lot of celebration and cheer (and the airing of grievances, depending on which day you celebrate). Let’s keep it a little light and fluffy by looking at Grammar Girl’s article on colorful idioms over the next few days.

1. Red-Handed

First is that fiery color red, as in the idiom caught red-handed, which has a hyphen between red and handed. This means caught in the act of a crime, as in “She was caught red-handed stealing $100.” As you might suspect, the use of the color red in the phrase originates from the color of blood. The phrase originally referred to blood on a murderer’s hands but now extends to other crimes. The noun red-hand has appeared in print in Scottish legal proceedings since 1432, but red-handed was first printed in 1819, in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, which helped to popularize the phrase. [KC – And then there was the episode of
The Simpsons when Bart wrote a book report on Ivanhoe and claimed it was about “A Russian peasant and his tool.”]

2. White-Livered

Now we’ll move from red to white, and the association of white with cowardice. If you say a man is white-livered or lily-livered, you are saying that he lacks courage, or that he is pale and without vitality. It is easy to see why white is associated with being pale and unhealthy, but we need to dig a little deeper to discover what a pale liver has to do with being afraid.

It all goes back to the Ancient Greeks and Hippocrates, who proposed a theory called humorism. This theory, which was believed until the 1800s, held that the body had four humors—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—and that those humors needed to be kept in balance. [KC – So much for the “light and fluffy” feel to this article.]

The humor that is relevant to the meaning of white-livered is yellow bile, supposedly made in the liver. Yellow bile, known as the choleric humor, is hot and dry, and it “provokes, excites and emboldens the passions.” The idiom white-livered, therefore, stems from the thought that individuals without much yellow bile lacked a bold temperament and were therefore cowardly.

3. Tickled Pink

Next on our list of colors is pink, and we’re sticking with the medical theme. We hope you’ll be tickled pink! The idiom tickled pink means delighted and first came into being in 1922. The phrase uses the color pink because your complexion becomes flushed—and pinkish—when you feel the tickling sensation. That’s great if you enjoy tickling, but parents may want to think twice when tickling their children (or other people’s kids). Laughing when being tickled is an automatic response and the child may not actually enjoy the tickling. It can be difficult to say, “Stop!” [KC – This whole phrase seems to leave out the majority of the world’s non-Caucasian complexions, but that is a discussion for another time, I guess.]

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

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