[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2023.]
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 we’re with your girlfriend on this one. We’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 examples date from the 1870s.
Another widespread explanation is that the expression originated in 1837 when the Marquis of Waterford and a bunch of rowdy friends literally painted some public spots red in the English town of Melton Mowbray. That’s doubtful, since the earliest recorded examples appeared decades later—and in the United States, not Britain.
So where did “paint the town red” come from? The expression originated in the United States, according to the Oxford English Dicitonary, which defines it as “to enjoy oneself flamboyantly; go on a boisterous or exuberant spree.”
Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher with an interest in word sleuthing, found the earliest example we know of in a Nebraska newspaper and reported it to the Linguist List in October 2023. Here’s the quotation:
“Therefore we say, the day is not far off in the future, when all the Iowa roads will run their trains into Omaha’s mammoth depot, and in that day, as Harry Deuel says, ‘we’ll paint the whole town red and sing the hallelujah chorus’ ” (Omaha Daily Republican, July 31, 1874; Harry Deuel was a prominent Omaha citizen).
The coinage took off in the following decade. We’ve seen a couple of examples from 1880, and dozens from later in the ’80s.
Here’s the OED’s first reference: “He gets on a high old drunk with a doubtful old man, and they paint the town red together” (Semi-Weekly Interior Journal, Stanford, KY, March 10, 1882).
We haven’t seen any published examples that explain why the color red was used rather than, say, green or blue or orange. There are a few modern theories, but none very plausible and none supported by any evidence. A full explanation may never be known.