Thursday 15 April 2010

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain was the mnemonic that I was taught as a child in order to remember the colours of the rainbow. Why anybody thought that I needed to remember the colours of the rainbow, I don't know. Nobody, in all my long and weary years, has ever asked me "Hey, Dogberry, what are the colours of the rainbow in the correct order?" But such was I taught, and as an aftershock to yesterday's post on synaesthesia here is a post on the colours of the rainbow.

Red: Red letter days are so called because in old church calenders feast days were written in red ink. In American banking ledgers of the early twentieth century debts were written in red ink and credits in black. An Italian debtor is said to be in the green. Either way one is in the soup.

Orange: Oranges were originally a fruit and didn't become a colour until 1542. For this reason in the Nun's Priest's Tale Chauntecleer the Cockerel describes his nightmare about a fox thus:

Me mette [dreamed] how that I romed up and doun
Withinne our yeerd, wheer as I saugh a beest
Was lyk an hound, and wolde han maad areest
Upon my body, and wolde han had me deed.
His colour was bitwixe yelow and reed
And tipped was his tayl and both his eeris

He then goes on to defy laxatives.

Yellow: Has always stood for cowardice, it was believed that a lack of blood made the liver yellow. It's odd that nobody seems to like to mention this colour. I can think of no yellow political party and even yellow hair is called blond/blonde (the only adjective in English that agrees with its noun) or golden. The yellow jersey of the Tour De France is the one exception that I can think of.

As Bob Dylan wrote in Tombstone Blues:

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

Green: The sixth stanza of Anderw Marvell's The Garden runs thuslyly:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness
The mind, that ocean where each kind,
Does straight its own resemblance find.
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

The second couplet, by the way, is based on the idea of contemporary biology that each land animal had an equivalent in the sea. However, even at the time Thomas Browne (the Inky Fool's favourite essayist) was inclined to disbelief:

THAT all Animals of the Land, are in their kind in the Sea, although received as a principle, is a tenent very questionable, and will admit of restraint. For some in the Sea are not to be matcht by any enquiry at Land, and hold those shapes which terrestrious forms approach not; as may be observed in the Moon fish, or Orthragoriscus, the several sorts of Raia's, Torpedo's, Oysters, and many more, and some there are in the Land which were never maintained to be in the Sea, as Panthers, Hyæna's, Camels, Sheep, Molls, and others, which carry no name in Ichthyology,

Blue: Blue murder is not a rather saucy form of homicide: it is a translation of the French exclamation mort bleu, which is a corruption of mort dieu, meaning death of God. Blue murders are likely to be carried out by blue-rinse blue stockings.

Indigo: is one beyond blue, it is therefore a very sad colour. Blues musicians have nothing on their indigo colleagues:

For there's nobody who cares about me
I'm just a poor fool that's bluer than blue can be

Is therefore a lyric from Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo*.


"Roses are red
Violets are blue":
That's what the song said,
But it cannot be true.
"I have seen roses
Damasked red and white"
Shakespeare discloses,
And he's always right.
And a blind man could see
That violets are violet
Such truths are inviolate.

And after that we drift into the invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is mostly white noise.

Violet in colour, I think you'll agree.

*Duke Ellington wrote neither the melody, the title nor the lyric; but the matter is so vexed that I shan't go into it here.


  1. The Lib Dems are very definitely yellow, even if they occasionally describe themselves as orange.

    Nick Clegg clearly thinks so, as his reference to Vince Cable being in the "yellow corner" demonstrates:

    "Think about the alternatives to Alistair Darling. In the yellow corner: Vince Cable, former chief economist at Shell. In the blue corner: George Osborne, former Tory research assistant".

    (Nick Clegg's Leader's Speech to the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in 2008).

    "Yellow hair" always makes me think of Yeats's "For Anne Gregory":
    "..Only God, my dear,
    Could love you for yourself alone/
    And not your yellow hair.'

  2. How right you are. Shows how closely I've been following politics.

  3. I thought you were being ever so witty about not having noticed the yellow party. Almost as witty as Caitlin Moran:

    "Vince Cable — Britain’s de facto tribal elder, in the continuing absence of Merlin"

    Also, I read (or heard?) somewhere recently that there are actually six colours in the rainbow and that indigo was invented because seven was considered a lucky number.

    (Did you tell me that? Or was it Dr. Lapel?)

  4. Irony, oh, of course... I entirely failed to spot this. But I am moving to Twickenham and therefore compelled to take the Lib-Dems seriously as a political force.

  5. I failed to notice the irony as well, Mrs. M.

    I envision Dogberry living in an isolated ivory tower somewhere surrounded by ancient tomes, and so was hardly surprised he'd missed the ongoing political palaver ...

  6. No irony. I had entirely forgotten. There's even a huge "LIB DEMS WINNING HERE" outside my neighbours' house, which can't be doing much good. Mind you, it's orange.

  7. I was going to defend my favourite colour, yellow, by saying 'LibDems!' too, but as I came in too late I'll have to make do with the consolation prize - (ahem) Coldplay:
    Look at the stars,
    Look how they shine for you,
    And everything you do,
    Yeah they were all yellow,
    ...hey, I don't write this stuff!

  8. And why was that famous submarine yellow?

    Are there any other colours (other than orange which, we are agreed, doesn't really exist) with two syllables?

  9. Donovan sang of his true love's yellow hair, and I remember (not fondly) Roy G. Biv from Grade 7 Science class whenever I see a rainbow.

    And fuschia probably doesn't count either, Moptop, for the same reason. But it's the new black.

  10. PUR-PLE!! Etymology, please???

  11. ...and I have heard (care to do some research and get back to me? ha) that Westerners started printing important things in red after Spanish missionaries caught on to the practice among the native peoples of current-day Mexico and Central America. They transcribed the parts of the bible that they wanted to teach in red (cochineal ink), because to the native population, black ink signified mundane/profane subject matter.

    Ah - apologies for just dropping in. I saw a comment of yours on Joel Stickley's site.

    Nice blog!

  12. Ashley, I've no idea although I shall try to find out. Presumably, though, the Bible would have remained in Latin, so they wouldn't have been teaching the natives much. Also pre-Columbus American writing systems were pretty rudimentary. Like I say, though, I don't really know.

  13. Aha! It seems that the Aztecs did write in black and red ink.

    But I can't find anything about different inks for different subject matter.

  14. Ha! Yes, good points.

    Interesting link - thank you! ...You know, a professor of mine told that story to our class in relation to Gloria Anzaldua's writing. Perhaps it's in her work somewhere with a reference. I'll have to poke around in our Anzaldua Reader..

    Oh! And one more thing on red.. Anzaldua said that people who write at night are visited by the Witch Muse, who brings you writer's block. All that's needed to defeat her, however, is a change in ink color, preferably to red. (I had many rainbow-colored essay drafts after that. Hehe.)