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Envy, jealousy, and puke: Why all green?

Submitted by Druss on Wed, 2012-06-13 11:12

I was wondering earlier why the predominant color of Islam is green. This led me to wondering why it's also associated with emotions like envy and jealousy. Here are a few of the fruits of my dig deep down into the "emerald mine of knowledge" that is the Internet.

From Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice:

How all the other passions fleet to air,
As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair,
And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy! O love,
Be moderate; allay thy ecstasy,
In measure rein thy joy; scant this excess.
I feel too much thy blessing: make it less,
For fear I surfeit.

Shakespeare's famous passage from Othello reads:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

It is unlikely that Shakespeare brought about the use of green for jealousy. But The Phrase Finder thinks that this might be a possibility. The site also notes:

Green is a colour associated with sickness, possibly because people's skin sometimes takes on a slightly yellow/green tinge when they are seriously ill. Green is also the colour of many unripe foods that cause stomach pains.

While analyzing the use of green in Othello, Charles R. Swindoll provides the following wisdom in his book, New Testament Insights:

These words from Shakespeare's Othello are the background for the English idiom, "green with envy." The Greeks thought that feelings of envy and its sister sin, jealousy, caused an overproduction of bile, turning that person a pale, putrid green. The idea of being sick with jealousy comes from that deep, nauseous feeling we get when we are jealous or envious.

Interesting stuff, yes? Now, bile is one (well, two) of the four Hippocratic humors with choleric (or χολή) being yellowish-green bile. Moreover, chloros (χλωρός) is the Greek word for, among other things, green, pale, and yellow. This makes kissing cousins out of the following related words: the poisonous, green halide, Chlorine, the devastating disease, Cholera, the disaster-waiting-to-happen, Cholesterol, and I'm sure a few more Molotov bread baskets.

The other bile mentioned above is "black bile", aka "melan chole" (μελαγχολία). Does that sound familiar?

Chasing up the Greek connection further led me next to The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty by Helen King which is effectively a medical study. The author creditably investigates the medical condition of Chlorosis (aka greensickness) all the way back to its roots in ancient Greece where she finds its use in Sapphic poetry. A couple of choice excerpts follow:

Sappho's 'more chloros than grass' is the most influential use of chloros

As Irwin's study of Greek colour terminology demonstrates, words change their meanings over time. She traced a gradual shift in the meaning of chloros from 'green' in the eighth century BC to 'pale' or 'blanched' by the fourth century BC; in the Homeric poems, it was closest to 'green', and was seen as the colour appropriate to fear, because the frightened were thought to produce more bile from the liver, the organ in which fear is centred. By the fourth century BC, those who were afraid were thought to have become pale, because blood was believe to rush towards the heart, away from the surface of the body.

Ergo, as mentioned earlier, green = pale. Also, as noted earlier, Chloros (green, pale) can also mean yellow. You can see how this has happened through its etymological ancestor, geolu and the fact that the two colors are closely related (yellow = green + red). Now, geolu also happens to be the ancestor of another word that isn't necessarily reeking with positivity: gall. Yes, that's right. The organ that stores bile, the gall bladder, is also essentially "green". Another word that shares the same root is the Latin, galbinus, which in turn is the root for another vehicle of misery, Jaundice.

I should also note that choleric, gall, and jaundice all have figurative meanings that are decidedly negative. Anger, misery, suffering, exasperation, envy, prejudice, are all words found in one or more of their definitions. Puke, vomit, sick, etc. are also all associated with the color green. One only needs to look at the plethora of (graphic) emoticons out there for puke or revulsion and it is inevitably colored green. This link is again due to bile as when vomit is green in color, it is due to the high content of bile within, a potential sign of the presence of a hernia, gall stones, or worse.

So there you have it. Envy, jealousy, pale, sickness, cholera, chlorine, cholesterol, choleric, chlorosis, green sickness, gall, jaundice, vomit, puke, and melancholy are all "green" words. I've never been much of a fan of the color before. I sure as hell am not one now.