Thursday, May 30, 2013

Green with Envy

Hugh from Traverse City asked about the phrase green with envy. The color scheme goes back to ancient Greek concepts of medicine and the workings of the body.

They believed that good health was achieved when four vital fluids in the body were in perfect balance. These four fluids (or humors) were blood, phlegm, black vile, and yellow bile.

Furthermore, they believed that these physical substances also had psychological consequences; they affected thought and emotion.
  • Blood was warm and moist. It promoted joy, optimism, and affection. This was the sanguine personality.
  • Phlegm was cold and wet. It induced passivity, torpor, and sentimentality. This was the phlegmatic personality.
  • Black bile was cold and dry. It made one brooding, melancholy, and withdrawn. This was the melancholic personality.
  • Yellow bile was hot and dry. It provoked anger, ambition, envy, jealousy, and courage. This was the choleric personality.

Strictly speaking, the phrase should have been yellow with envy, but there would have been a greenish-yellowish skin cast, I suppose. Shakespeare perpetuated the association between the color green and jealousy:

  • O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
    It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
    The meat it feeds on. [Othello Act 3, scene 3]
  • Be not her maid, since she is envious;
    Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
    And none but fools do wear it. [Romeo & Juliet Act 2, scene 2]
  • They have dispatch'd with Pompey, he is gone;
    The other three are sealing. Octavia weeps
    To part from Rome; Caesar is sad; and Lepidus,
    Since Pompey's feast, as Menas says, is troubled
    With the green sickness. [Antony & Cleopatra Act 3, scene 2]

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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