The Grammarphobia Blog

Can a tree blush green?

Q: It’s happening again. Every spring my wife notices the onset of buds on the trees and tells me they are “blushing green.” I tell her that “blushing” refers to red, not green. She tells me that if I can find a better way to convey the idea of “blushing green,” she will deign to use it. Can you help?

A: We think your wife’s description of tender young buds as “blushing green” is delightful, and it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. The original meaning of “blush,” in the 14th century, had nothing to do with redness.

The word “blush” first showed up as a verb, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and initially meant to “cast a glance” or “give a look.” The OED’s earliest written citation is from 1325.

The noun “blush” was first recorded in writing in about 1340, when it meant “a gleam, a blink.” By this time, the verb was being used to mean “shine forth.”

A slightly later sense of the noun – “a glance, glimpse, blink, look” – was recorded about 1375 in the expression “aftur the furste blusch.” We still use the word this way, in the phrase “at first blush” (the equivalent of “at first glance”).

The current sense of the verb “blush,” meaning “to become red in the face, (usually) from shame or modesty,” came along in the mid-15th century, the OED says.

The first written citation is from about 1450, in the phrase “blushed red.” Later, the “red” became unnecessary and “blushing” by itself meant turning red.

The use of the noun “blush” to mean “the reddening of the face caused by shame, modesty, or other emotion” was first recorded in Shakespeare, the OED says.

The earliest citation is from Henry VI (1593): “And not bewray thy Treason with a Blush.” And here’s another, from Henry V (1599): “Put off your Maiden Blushes.” (In Shakespeare’s day, “bewray” meant to unintentionally reveal a secret.)

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