Q: My girlfriend and I have been arguing about the expression “paint the town red.” I’ve heard that it comes from ancient times when the Roman Legions used to wash the walls of conquered towns with the blood of the defeated people. My girlfriend is skeptical. Who’s correct?
A: Sorry, but I’m with your girlfriend on this one. I’ve found no evidence that the Romans routinely painted the walls of captured towns with the blood of conquered people.
Roman society depended heavily on slavery, and the Romans tended to enslave rather than massacre conquered people (see accounts by Livy, Josephus, and the modern historian K.R. Bradley of the conquests of Carthage, Jerusalem, Epirus, and so on).
At any rate, it’s hardly likely that Roman atrocities would be the source of “paint the town red.” The expression is relatively recent—the earliest published references in the Oxford English Dictionary date from the late 19th century.
Another widespread explanation is that the expression originated in 1837 when the Marquis of Waterford and a bunch of rowdy friends painted some public spots red in the English town of Melton Mowbray. Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, appears to accept the Melton Mowbray story. I have my doubts, however, since the first OED citations didn’t appear until nearly half a century after the incident.
So where did “paint the town red” come from? The expression, which means to go on a boisterous or riotous spree, originated in the United States, according to the OED. In fact, the dictionary’s earliest reference is from a Boston newspaper in 1884.
The language researcher Barry Popik suggests that the expression may actually have originated in Chicago. He cites an article in an Ohio newspaper indicating that the phrase was coined to describe the exuberance of former President Ulysses S. Grant’s supporters during the Republican National Convention in 1880. The citation doesn’t explain, however, why the word “red” was used.
There are quite a few other theories about the origin of “paint the town red,” some more plausible (or perhaps less implausible) than others, but I suspect that a full explanation may never be known.