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I stumbled upon the phrase "paint it black" in a tv series (Elementary) and was wondering what does it exactly mean?

Also, in which situations would you use it normally? Except when you tell the painter which color you want your oven. :p

Asking Google always returns to the Rolling Stones' song and people talk about depression, but I don't feel like that really fits here.

Also the person in the series is using the sentence to give his snipers the green light for an attack. Is it understandable for everyone to start firing when you hear the sentence or is it more like a codeword they must have agreed on beforehand?

Any explanations and insights are mostly welcome!

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    Could you be more precise about the context in which you heard "paint it black"? – Erik Kowal Jun 2 '14 at 3:09
  • @ErikKowal - He heard it in an episode of the TV show Elementary. I hadn't realized, until just now, that the episode is actually titled "Paint it Black". – MT_Head Jun 2 '14 at 3:39
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    Why do I feel positively ancient knowing that two out of three answerers have never heard of this expression? Talk about depression :^) – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '14 at 5:09
  • In the show, the phrase is just a pre-agreed signal to start shooting, it doesn't have any explicit meaning. Though black being the colour of death, "Paint it black" is a rather poetic kind of kill-order. – Neil W Jun 2 '14 at 6:00
  • I just watched the episode (I was about a month behind - catching up now!) The phrase was used out of the blue, with no foreshadowing (no Stones references, etc.), and I suspect it was done simply to match the title of the episode; the show has a history of coming up with catchy titles that are somewhat-skewed pop-culture references, and then torturing the plot to fit. (Example: "Dead Clade Walking". Sheesh.) I like the show a lot, but... – MT_Head Jun 2 '14 at 7:03
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It would appear that you underestimate the cultural significance of the Rolling Stones!

A quick search for the phrase's history (via Google nGrams) shows that it was not an idiomatic phrase before the song was released in 1966: except for a Southerner opposed to civil rights in the 1920s ("We will paint this State red before we paint it black") and a reference to national colors ("It would be just the same if Ireland began to paint the map green or Montenegro were to paint it black"), (almost) all the pre-1966 instances I find are literal references to actually putting real black paint onto things. It's only after the song became iconic that "paint it black" became an idiomatic expression.

All of the imagery in the Stones song is to death and its accompanying sadness; black is the color of funerals in England, and at least one verse ("I see a line of cars and they're all painted black / With flowers and my love both never to come back") is an explicit reference to a funeral cortege. Using "Paint it black" as the fire-at-will signal is sardonic, and makes excellent television - but is probably not in common usage. (I haven't watched the episode yet, so don't know who was giving that order - if it was, for example, a police/SWAT commander, use of a command like that would likely result in suspension from duty, since the police are supposed to be preventing funerals rather than causing them. A military commander in a war zone might get away with it. It sounds, however, like something the "bad guy" would say.)

It's a pop-culture reference which has become an idiom; the characters in "Elementary" are assumed to know the song and understand its meaning. (Most people in North America and the UK, between the ages of 30 and 65, have heard the song at least a dozen times.) To people from elsewhere, or from a different generation, it has no obvious meaning and should probably be avoided if you wish to avoid misunderstanding.

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  • I found one instance where the expression is used in the past tense, painted black, and appears to have the contemporary idiomatic meaning – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '14 at 3:28
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    @Mari-LouA - Nice find! And, now that I think of it, there's an old expression "He's not as black as he's painted", meaning "not as bad a character as you've heard". – MT_Head Jun 2 '14 at 3:35
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    I just realized that "Paint it Black" (the song) is the Stones' re-working of Funeral Blues by WH Auden: "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, / Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, / Silence the pianos and with muffled drum / Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. / ... / The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, / Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, / Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; / For nothing now can ever come to any good." – MT_Head Jun 2 '14 at 3:50
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    (Sorry for the cross-talk!) No, I doubt that they had that poem in mind specifically - I merely meant that the sentiment expressed is the same. I hadn't realized that until I re-read the lyrics (for the first time in a very long time) because of this question. My previous understanding of the lyrics - and I suspect it's quite common; I even suspect that the writers of Elementary understand it this way - was that the narrator is a depressive jerk who wants to make everyone else miserable because he's a jerk; in fact, he wants to make everyone else miserable as a memorial. SO much better! – MT_Head Jun 2 '14 at 3:58
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    Using "Paint it black" as the fire-at-will signal is sardonic, and makes excellent television - but is probably not in common usage. That's what I was looking for, thank you! – meike Jun 2 '14 at 10:48
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I have never heard this phrase before but considering your context is a conversation wherein a sniper is receiving orders to take a shot, I have a strong suspicion that this may be referring to thermal imaging.

On thermal imaging, heat sources shine bright colors. Often reds and yellows. Things like people and machines stand out against a background of colder objects which are often represented by a dark green or black color.

Taking a shot and killing someone would turn their red thermal image into a black image as their body cools.

You could say the sniper is painting the image black.

Military lingo is full of "colorful" phrases and idioms. Though I have a gut feeling that this may be a writer's idea of military lingo rather than actual slang.

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  • +1 "Paint it black" is much, much older than the Stones or any song they may have based it on, but in context the lack of thermal glow from a corpse seems like an excellent analogy. The dead bodies appear to have been painted (on the scope) in black. – Frank Jun 2 '14 at 7:48
  • That's a very interesting interpretation, as the scene plays at night it would even fit. – meike Jun 2 '14 at 10:45
  • I'm with Preston. I thought “paint it black” resonated with “wipe them out” and loosely, google.com/search?q=paint+it+black+vietnam&rlz=1C5CHFA_enGB779GB779&oq=paint+oit+blzck+vietnam&aqs=chrome..69i57j0j46j0l5.13167j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 agrees. Vietnam saw the use of starlight scopes and prolly, infra red. Both produced clear pictures where ordinary vision would see nothing. In that context, “paint it black” would mean something very close to what was used in Elementary: “Wipe out all signs of life…” That might include a rider “… enemy life…”; chillingly, it might not. – Robbie Goodwin Apr 27 at 17:58
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I've never heard this phrase, but according to dictionary.com it means to represent something negatively.

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I know that I'm joining this conversation years late, but my understanding of the phrase to "paint [something] black" is to have a negative view of a situation, disproportionately so if the phrase is to "paint [something] blacker than it is". As far as I am aware, it has been around a lot longer than the Rolling Stones song.

Here in the UK, it's a common enough phrase. I'd be quite surprised if any friends or acquaintances didn't understand it.

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    Hello, G. If you look at Jamie's answer, you'll see that your view is that given in dictionary.com. When you have sufficient 'rep' points, you will be able to leave an informative comment like this, but 'answers' on ELU are really welcomed when they're substantive and backed by linked, attributed supporting references (see the accepted answer, which would be excellent if it included dictionary support of the idiom's meaning like Jamie's does). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 29 '19 at 11:31
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I'm frustrated because all references seem to go back to the Rolling Stones song. I worked in a multi-cultural lab & a Slavic coworker told me a phrase in their native language that translated to: paint it black & throw it away. (Perhaps meaning acknowledge you're done with it, it's garbage.)

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  • Your answer would benefit from linked references to support your claim, tough given the source that you cite. In my view this answers the question though. (From review). Welcome to EL&U. – Bitter dreggs. Apr 26 at 16:35
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Painting a picture black is a form of erasing it, or making it into nothing. I saw that episode, and I understand the phrase in that context to be "eliminate them", like a painter would eliminate a painting by splashing black paint over the entire canvas.

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painted black is an industry specific term, which is why most people have not heard it. it means to be split - or temporarily regarded as all bad. The song is about a suicide, he is a suicide survivor. his heart is black, in fact his whole world is black. this is very sad. it's also very sad that his intentions are misinterpreted by some people. poor guy is probably a better person then he ever was before. If you start paying attention to how people treat other people that they know have no power, and all the meanness used in the world to force these people into compliance (how the person being mean(punishing) wants the other person to act and speak)...you will realise that few people out there don't have a black heart. he looks inside himself and see his heart is black. we all know what a black heart is. he was bad for so long that his whole world is black, and its not easy to "face up" when your whole world is black. maybe i'll just fade away and not have to face the facts...this is something he will be facing up to for the rest of his life. i could say its no ones fault because this is what we are taught- but we choose to use it, so we chose to be black hearted all along, and he won't accept any justifications anyways...

If whoever wrote the song could demand a certain title, the rolling stones would never have changed it to paint it black, no meaning there.

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Paint it black is means : Burn the people with napalm , bombing them from sky - That it means. Paint it black = Kill them , put them under funerals colors . If was coming from Romania ,my home country , then should be Painted red ...by Dracula ...ha ha

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  • Can you provide any sources for these meanings? – phenry Nov 17 '14 at 17:23
  • Sounds reasonable, but I found zilch to support it. – Phil Sweet Dec 29 '19 at 22:04

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