Readers reply: why is envy green? Is it the same in other cultures?

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Green with envy … but is it from Shakespeare, Ovid or Sappho?
Green with envy … but is it from Shakespeare, Ovid or Sappho? Photograph: Michael Phillips/Getty Images
Green with envy … but is it from Shakespeare, Ovid or Sappho? Photograph: Michael Phillips/Getty Images

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 08.09 EST

Why is envy (or jealousy) green? Is it the same colour in other cultures?
Martyn Fairbrother, Paris

Send new questions to nq@hlcarpenter.com.

Readers reply

A fascinating question. The answer includes angry Romans and blue-eyed northern invaders FromageBleu

Surely it’s from Othello?

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on

I know jealousy and envy aren’t quite the same, but you get the idea. (In the play, “jealousy” means “suspicion” before some smartypants points it out.) JonFruit

The same phrase appears in Merchant of Venice where Portia says (I looked this up):

How all the other passions fleet to air,
As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair,
And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy!

Simon Danes

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the personification of Envy, upon seeing beautiful Minerva:

A hoard of gall her inward parts possess’d,
And spread a greenness o’er her canker’d breast

There are various translations, and they don’t all refer to green. The first translation from Latin directly to English was Arthur Golding’s in 1567, and it does use green:

The working of hir festered gall had made hir stomacke greene.

So the use of green to denote envy pre-dates Shakespeare’s writings, albeit by about 30 years, rather than 1,500. BellaTheCook

The Latin text (Ov, Met, II, 777) is “pectora felle virent”, literally: breasts (pectora) are green (virent) felle (with gall). The Latin verb “vireo” means “to be green, verdant”. Bibianca

The ancient Greeks believed that envy or jealousy was caused by overproduction of bile, giving the complexion a greenish hue. In the seventh century BC, Sappho described an ex lover as green. Salingari

I’m being picky, but … Sappho describes herself as green, when she looks at her ex-lover with another person. But it could also just mean she feels pale and clammy since the Greek has many nuances. checkoutthechintz

Ex-lover? We don’t know where she is in the relationship, if there ever was one. It’s all about her desire. She says she is “paler than grass”. CinBrooklyn

It seems to me we are green when unwell – with sea sickness, with drink (not I of course, but others) – and lose our appetite for the delights of life. Envy will have the same effect, a distaste that spoils.

Envy is orange in Much Ado About Nothing, when Beatrice says of Count Claudio when the latter mistakenly thinks his prince, Don Pedro, has swooped in and stolen his beloved (act 2, scene 1).

The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor
well; but civil count, civil as an orange, and
something of that jealous complexion.

(Civil = Seville, ie, where oranges grow) Krzysztof Odyniec

Green was a colour very difficult to replicate. Green plant dyes quickly turn to brown, while the ancient Egyptians tried malachite, which has a tendency to turn black. The ancient Greeks gave up on green almost entirely, the four classic colours of Greek painting being yellow, red, black and white. So, perhaps, green was the evasive colour that all tried to copy; jealousy, the emotion shown toward those that managed it. wormwood20

Around the world

In Italy too we say green out of envy: “verde dall’invidia”. We also say “verde come la bile” (green like bile) and that explains why green: the bile is green, and has to do with anger. Anna Brancaleon

In German we say that hope is green, yellow is envy, blue is being
faithful and red is obviously love. We go “gelb vor Neid” – yellow with envy. Funnily enough, there is also the saying “grün vor Neid”, green with envy … but “grün ist die Hoffnung”, “hope is green”. I don’t know why. Young people may not know this any more but my grandmother, born in 1911, always used to associate colours with feelings. In Spanish “poner verde a alguien”, “to make somebody green” means “to slag off”, but green is also the colour of hope. Also “películas verdes”, “green movies” are “dirty” = pornographic movies. Karen Fischer, Göttingen

A familiar Dutch expression is “Looking green from jealousy” – so yes, same here! Riki Simons

Swedish: “Grön av avundsjuka” – green of envy. Anna Carlgren

Same thing in Danish, verbatim. “Grøn af misundelse” = green of envy. In daily and common use. Christian Hansen

It’s green in Spanish, too: “verde de envidia”. BlueandRedCrow

In Portuguese, “verde de inveja”. meansardine

It’s yellow in Hungarian. “Sárga irigység”, as in “megeszi a sárga irigység” – “The yellow envy is consuming me”, or literally, “yellow envy is eating me up”. Katalin Bende

In the Philippines, green is associated with sexual thoughts, the phrase “green movie” is similar in meaning to a blue movie in English. If someone is described as “green-minded”, it means they are always thinking about sex. rickhartland

In Ukraine, where I’m from, and indeed in other Slavic cultures, we have white envy and black envy. White envy means you’re happy for other people and wish you also had what they have. The black variety implies that if you don’t have it, no one should. OkanaSammer

The Finns are arguably some of the most envious people on this planet (and I say this as one). There’s a Finnish saying, translated roughly “envy even takes all the fish out of water”, meaning how destructive force it is. Mikko

Green in Norway as well. Megalope

Green also associated with naivety. Blue with sadness. Red with anger. Then there’s purple prose, being in a brown study, and black comedy. The association of colours with emotions is truly fascinating. Great question. poorprints

In Spanish, “un viejo verde” is a dirty old man, and a lewd joke is “un chiste verde”. lolwhites

In China, pornographic movies are “yellow”. Liuzhoukaf

I don’t know about colour association, but I think a term for being jealous in China is “drinking vinegar”, which is a great analogy. ChiantiRioja

In China, wearing a green hat means to be a cuckold. bkkmei

These are expressions in various languages, showing some of the variety of emotions metaphorically expressed through colour and movement of the eye. It was part of an exhibition, Seeing With the Naked Eye by the artist Mary Kuper for the Endangered Languages Archive at Soas, highlighting their efforts to document endangered languages and celebrate language diversity. Here are some of the eye metaphors illustrated – from Ewe, Masai, Persian, Tunisian Arabic, English and Chinese

In Maasai, one’s eyes are black when one is envious, but in Ewe, one’s eyes are “macro-red” when one is envious.

Tunisian Arabic: “The world darkened in my eyes/I saw everything dark” (I was mad with anger); “I made my eyes red to her” (I gave her an angry look); “His eye is rough”, “His eye is salty”, “His eye is spicy” (he is envious).

Persian: “He/she is envious of our progress” (lit. he/she can’t see our progress). “He/she hates me” (due to envy) (lit. he/she doesn’t have eye of seeing me). “He/she is envious of us” (lit. her eye becomes blind for us). “He/she is envious of us” (lit. the ball of his/her eye come out for us).

Chinese: ji-yan (impatient/anxious-eyes) “become angry; feel anxious”; sha-yan (stupid-eyes) “be dumbfounded; be stunned”; bai-yan (white-eyes) “supercilious look; contemptuous look”; hong-yan (red-eyes) “see red; become infuriated; be jealous”; yan-hong (eyes-red) “covet; be envious; be jealous; be furious”; yan-re (eyes-hot) “covet; be envious”; yan-chan (eye-greedy) “cast covetous eyes at; covet; be envious”. Mary Kuper, London

Drat! How I wish I’d thought of that question. Now I’m ultramarine inclining slightly towards violet with jealousy. ThereisnoOwl

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