Green: Lucky or Unlucky?

shamrocks in several shades of green
Source: mvcaf, Flickr

It seems like just about all of Chicago will wear green this weekend and again on Tuesday, hoping for a little luck o’ the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

But is green really such a lucky color? The color that graces everything from seaweed to treetops is used in many of our expressions, with positive and negative effect.

Where’s a word nerd to turn? Oxford English Dictionary, which has definitions of English words and phrases as they have been used over time. The entry on green explores the good and the bad.

3 Ways Green Is Unlucky

  1. “Green around the gills” was first used by Charles Dickens in an 1843 letter. He was feeling, “…red in the nose, green in the gills,…and fractious in the temper from a most intolerable and oppressive cold.”
  2. “Green with envy [or jealousy]” first appeared in 1863, in the novel Hard Cash by Charles Reade.
  3. “Green in earth” means just buried. Shakespeare coined this phrase in Romeo and Juliet in 1599: “Where bloudie Tybalt yet but greene in earth, Lies festring in his shroude.”

3 Ways Green Is Lucky

  1. Who wouldn’t want a green thumb? The “horticultural slang for being a successful gardener with instinctive understanding of growing things,” first showed up in 1937 in the Ironwood (Mich.) Daily Globe.
  2. A greenback, a monetary note issued by the United States during and after the Civil War, later became slang for a dollar bill. In 1862, Captain James Wren's Civil War diary noted he was ready for the paymaster “to hand over green backs, which is much needed.”
  3. A “green old age” is full of vitality. First noted in 1634, in 1766 Oliver Goldsmith used it in The Vicar of Wakefield, “His green old age seemed to be the result of health and benevolence.”

If you’re described as “green,” you could be naïve or gullible, or as George Chapman put it in the 1605 comedy All Fools, “your credulous; easy to be blinded.” Or, you could be full of vigorous growth, a usage noted back in 1595 in the collected works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

I’d call it a draw and say we have the green light to decide for ourselves.

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