English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Why is the color green off-color?

Q: There’s a dictionary of slang in which the word “green” is said to mean sexual intercourse.  Ever heard of this usage?

A: Yes indeed.

You must have heard Pat when she spoke on WNYC in March about the arrival of spring, a season that’s always been associated with the color green.

As Pat said on the Leonard Lopate Show, green has other associations as well. We think of it in connection with youthful inexperience, newness, freshness, naiveté, gullibility, envy, and jealousy. It’s also the color of money (“greenbacks”), and of marijuana.

Then there’s sex.

Centuries ago, to “give someone a green gown” was to have sex outdoors. Why? Just imagine frisky wenches rolling in the meadow and getting grass stains on their dresses.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “green gown” as an archaic and historical term for “a dress stained green from rolling in grass.”

The phrase is found, the OED says, “chiefly in to give a woman a green gown: to engage in amorous play with a woman; (euphem.) to deflower, deprive a woman of her virginity.”

An early example of this usage is cited (appropriately!) in Green’s Dictionary of Slang. A 1351 indictment for rape in the county of Nottingham, written in Latin, includes the phrase induentes eam robam viridem (“giving her a green gown”).

The OED’s earliest sighting in English is from Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, written sometime before 1586: “Then some grene gowns are by the lasses worne / In chastest plaies, till home they walke a rowe.”

This blunter example is from the playwright Anthony Munday’s 1596 translation of Palmerin of England: “At length he was so bolde as to giue her a greene gowne, when I feare me she lost the flower of her chastitie.”

By the 19th century, “green” (or “greens”) was a slang term for “sexual activity, esp. intercourse,” the OED says.

The term frequently appeared in the phrase “to get one’s greens and variants, with implication of something which is (like vegetables in the diet) needed regularly,” Oxford explains.

The OED’s earliest example of this usage is from a suggestive poem in Swell’s Night Guide (1846): “She kept the greens, for very few she sold; / And, as her customers, the greens refuse, / Why, then, the greens gave this fair maid the blues.”

Green’s Dictionary mentions a few other uses of “green” in relation to sex. In 1773, Green’s reports, “greengrocer” was a euphemism for a prostitute. And in the 1960s, “green thumb” was gay slang for the penis.

Before we close, a note about the long association of “green” with envy.

Shakespeare did coin the expression “green-eyed monster” (Othello, circa 1603), but he was not the first to link the color with envy.

The English poets Geoffrey Chaucer, John Lydgate, and Stephen Scrope made the connection in the 14th and 15th centuries, according to the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary.

The MED notes that the color green (written as grene) was “symbolic of inconstancy or envy” in Middle English, the language of those earlier poets.

Why? It’s been suggested that a greenish complexion, thought to be caused by an excess of bile, was indicative of “fear, envy, ill humour, or sickness,” according to the OED.

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