Saturday, January 13, 2001

Painting the town red

BY now, everybody must have settled down after painting the town red on New Year’s Eve. The expression ‘paint the town red’ originated with the Roman Empire. After a battle, Roman soldiers would wash the walls of the newly-conquered town with the blood of the defeated people. This was done to the accompaniment of merry-making and festivity, hence the term came to mean a great night in the town even after the blood on the walls was completely forgotten. Of course, once in a blue moon one can paint the town red. ‘Once in a blue moon’ comes from the Farmers’ Almanac in Britain. Two full moons in the same month are very rare, though they are possible. In the Farmers’ Almanac, the date of the first full moon was printed in red and if the same month had a second full moon, it appeared in blue. So, the second full moon, if it appeared, came to be called a blue moon. And, once in a blue moon, came to mean, very rarely.

Expressions from seas
December 23,2000
Time capsule of words
December 16,2000
New words
December 2,2000
Words from myths
November 11,2000
The Olympics
October 14,2000
More metaphors
September 30, 2000
Metaphorical colour
September 16, 2000
Broader vistas
September 2, 2000
August 19, 2000
August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000
The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000

To get to the origin of most expressions, it is essential to read between the lines, that is, to look for implicit details. In the ancient times of sending messages through a bearer, people would write secret messages in a substance that would only be revealed on plain paper through the use of a reagent. For example, lemon juice is normally transparent on paper, but when heated, it becomes brown and any message written with it can be read on heating it. But a bearer could not deliver just a blank piece of paper, so the sender would write an ordinary letter in ink and write the secret message in the spaces in between the lines. The recipient would then have to treat the letter and read between the lines of the letter to reach the real message.

Sometimes, on reading between the lines, the rattle of many skeletons in the closet can be heard. This expression comes from the fairy tale of Blue Beard. On getting married to a beautiful woman, Blue Beard gave all the keys of his house to his new wife. When he left for work, he told her that she was never to open one room at the end of a long corridor. She opened the room and it turned out to be a closet, which held the skeletons of all his previous wives. Over time, the expression has lost its macabre origins, just the meaning of something hidden about one’s past lives on.


Etymologically speaking, most words in Hindi are full-fledged expressions as each word has a complete etymological explanation. The etymological sense may not be present in the mind of the everyday user, but the initial coinage has a tale to it. If the various synonyms of a word are taken into account, all that was in the mind of the first users about the concept can be recovered. For instance, gold is hema, ayas, as it is attractive; hiranyam, hatakam, as it is yellow; loham, as it is red; candra, kanak, as it is shining; amratam, as it is indestructible; kanchana, as it is fresh in colour; and jatarupa, as it is ornamental.

— Deepti

This feature was published on January 6, 2001