To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we are celebrating the color green. The word ‘green’ originally comes from the Old English verb growan (“to grow”)–an etymology shared by German and Scandinavian languages.
Kelly Green and Leprechauns
The shade of green typically associated with St. Patrick’s day is called Kelly Green. The name derives from the fact that the surname Kelly, as well as the color green, are both popular in Ireland. However, association of leprechauns with green originated in the United States in early 20th century. Before this, it was generally agreed that the leprechaun wore red and not green. Yeats wrote as late as 1888, that a leprechaun is “something of a dandy, and dresses in a red coat with seven rows of buttons.”
In October 2003, $20 (the most counterfeited U.S. bill) became the first American dollar bill since the American Civil War that wasn’t just black and green. When the federal government issued currency during the Civil War, it was backed by the Spanish dollars. To prevent counterfeiting, it was decided the back of the bills would be printed in a color other than black. The color green was chosen because it represented ‘stability’, thus coining the term “greenbacks”. Since then, green not only carries a connotation of capitalism but also of money itself. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum described the Emerald City, where everyone wears tinted glasses which make everything look green as a social commentary. [Baum supported the Gold Standard.]
In 1973 Dystopian movie, Soylent Green, the human race ridden by global warming and overpopulation lives on a depleted Earth beset with unemployment and poverty. Real fruit, vegetables, and meat are rare, commodities are expensive, and much of the population survives on processed food rations, including “soylent green” wafers. The film describes the efforts of a NY Police Detective Robert Thorn (played by Charlton Heston) who try to investigate a murder. At the end of the movie, Thorn sees how the corpses are processed into “soylent green” wafers, thus causing him to proclaim the movie’s most memorable last line, “Soylent Green is People.”
In Othello and The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare talked about envy being “green-eyed monster.” The moniker was just a Bardic interpretation of the centuries-old superstition associating green with evil. Green signified witchcraft, and base, natural desires of man, and was associated with faeries and spirits in English folklore. It is an unlucky color, and green cars, wedding dresses, and costumes are all the objects of superstition–a superstition which found its way to modern cinema. Green is the color of death [see The Shining for instance] and evil [The Grinch; Bela Lugosi who wore green makeup for black-and-white Dracula, the Wicked Witch of the West].
The first traffic lights were installed outside the Houses of Parliament in London in 1868. Green and red gas lamps used for the lights were taken from a railway station, but the tradition dates back to early seafaring times: port is identified by red and starboard by green in maritime right of way, where the vessel on the left must stop for the one crossing on the right. However, using green-red lights in New York in the 1920s nearly backfired: residents of Irish descent had objected to the fact that the “British” red was placed above the “Irish” green. Mao Zedong’s attempt to reform traffic lights was more disastrous; noting that Red, symbolizing Revolution must also come to symbolize ‘go’, Mao ordered the cars to go on red and stop on green. Many traffic accidents ensued and Mao had to recant his plans.
In the historical literature, it is “la fée verte” (the Green Fairy). It is said that one sees green fairies everywhere under the influence of this strong (and some contend, dangerous) anise and herbal drink. Originated in the canton of Neuchatel in Switzerland, absinthe gained green popularity in the 1840s, when it was given to the French troops as a malaria treatment. The Bohemians (luminaries like Baudelaire, van Gogh, Oscar Wilde include) quickly embraced the drink, which ironically required almost dandy-esque preparation (Absinthiana). It is preparing by pouring ice water over a sugar cube placed atop of a specially designed slotted spoon patched on a glass of absinthe.
Prophet Muhammad once noted that, “water, greenery, and a beautiful face” were three universally good things. Thus, the Islamic green, symbolizing religion, harmony and nature was born. In the Qur’an, people in Paradise wear fine green silk. Al-Khidur (“The Green One”), is a figure who met and traveled with Moses. The tribe of the prophet Muhammad had a green banner. Many Islamic nations and sects (Saudi Arabia, Hamas) have green flags, which culminated with Libya’s ascetically plain monocolored green flag which the country sported until 2011.