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On another SE site I frequent, in a question a non-native English speaker used "pink glasses" where they clearly meant the idiom "rose tinted" or "rose coloured" glasses.

The meaning of "looking through rose tinted glasses" is to see only good things, only the best parts of the view, only the positive attributes etc., as supported by this www.thefreedictionary.com definition:

rose-tinted glasses (British, American & Australian) also rose-tinted spectacles (British)

if someone looks at something through rose-tinted glasses, they see only the pleasant parts of it She has always looked at life through rose-tinted glasses.

However I started wondering how this idiom came to be. Certainly, to some dispositions, seeing the world with a soft pink glow (though not all roses are pink, to be sure), might count as comforting and "nice".

Google did not provide anything other that definitions of the phrase and looking for "rose-tinted glasses" in etymonline resulted in a most curious selection of results (possibly NSFW depending on your text filtering)

How (and when) did this come to be a widely accepted idiom for "only seeing the positive", with shades or subtext of naiveté?

  • While this probably has little to do with the answer to the question the idiom "pink glasses" exists for example in both Czech "vidět něco skrz růžové brýle" and German "etwas durch rosarote brille sehen". – DRF Jul 7 '15 at 12:32
  • Really? I did not know that. I would think the two would be connected at some point in the past- I wonder which came first? – Marv Mills Jul 7 '15 at 12:35
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    In French, we have in 1841 "l'optimiste souriant qui regarde la vie à travers des lunettes roses" (the smiling optimist who looks at life through pink glasses.) This is nearly as old as the oldest English source we've found so far. So it's not completely clear the origin is English. – Peter Shor Jul 8 '15 at 11:57
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To complement the other answers, I would like to point out the use of tinted lenses (of various colours) for therapeutic purposes. Since the 18th century, tinted lenses became more widespread, following some early birds (cf. the Samuel Pepys entry).

While it may be difficult to assess the efficacy of the practice, it seems that tinted glasses were commonly stipulated and even believed to be efficient against a number of maladies (such as jaundice, apparently). With hopefully fuller understanding, they still are.

This link to Axon Optics suggests rose-tinted glasses do have therapeutic effect against migraine. Quote:

A study performed by researchers at the University of Birmingham, England tested a group of migraine sufferers by having them wear glasses with a rose colored tint called FL-41. The tint preferentially blocks blue-green light and was originally developed to reduce sensitivity to fluorescent lighting, but has been shown effective in mitigating the frequency and severity of migraine, blepharospasm, and other light-sensitive conditions. Participants experienced a reduction in the number of migraines, from 6.2 episodes per month to 1.6 episodes per month. Dr Katz and researchers at the University of Utah continue to study and work to optimize tinted lenses for light sensitive patients.

(emphasis mine, references omitted)

This might be one explanation of the rose-tinted effect: a relief, which may border on euphoria.


I originally became interested in this post because, for Czechs, rose-tinted glasses are a notorious idiom, often (and probably erroneously) associated with Comenius' Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart. Therein, the pilgrim is accompanied in his wanderings by a Mr. Delusion, who presents him with a pair of glasses "ground from assumption and habit", which distort the pilgrim's perception considerably.

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A Google Books search finds four instances of "rose-colored glasses" from the years before 1850. From Mary Boddington, Slight Reminiscences of the Rhine, Switzerland, and a Corner of Italy (1834):

O the joy of blossoming life! What a delicious thing it is to be young, and to see everything through rose-coloured glasses ; but with a wish to be pleased, and a certain sunniness of mind, more in our power than we imagine, we may look through them a long time. When the sun shines, and the earth holds a bright holiday, I still feel as if life and hope were all before me, and yet the story i told out and out as far as belongs to dreams and fancies ; and yet I dream on, and love flowers, and air, and sunshine, as if I was but just beginning life.

From Mary Davenant, "The Ideal and the Real," in Godey's Lady's Book (October 1843):

"A man in love is easily deceived. I have seen more of life than you have, my dear, simply because I look at people with my own eyes, instead of through rose-coloured glasses as you do, and I never see a woman who appears so very soft and gentle that she cannot raise her voice much above a whisper, and whose every word and look betrays a studied forethought of the effect they are to produce, that I do not mistrust her sadly. Half of them re shrews, and the other half obstinate intriguers‚I am much mistaken if Mrs. St. Clair is not a little of both."

From "Elliotson's Principles and Practice of Medicine," The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (December 13, 1843):

The gentleman last named in the above somewhat extended overture to the work before us, is an old and valued personal friend of the writer of this brief notice. We have studied with him, ausculted with him, travelled with him, and in all these relations he has been among our most esteemed associates. If there were some good reason for valuing his talents and acquirements in the days of our personal intercourse, there is the same reason for hoping that he would not have published a book without merit, and that his friend need not be obliged to look at his labors through the rose-colored glasses of personal kindness to see them under a favorable aspect.

From W.A., Fewell: A Series of Essays of Opinion for Churchmen (1846):

But, however, looking at the position of the clergyman under this system, it is manifestly a temptation of that position to strive after popularity ; to be easy and compliant ; to inquire but little; and to permit the decencies, and suitabilities, and respectabilities of society to take the place of discipline—in short to see every thing rose-color; and if rose-color be not there, to put upon his nose rose-colored glasses.

These four instances show the range of attitudes that can be encompassed by the phrase. In Boddington's travel memoir, rose-coloured glasses are a kind of natural sunniness of outlook that goes some way toward transforming the world into the optimistic image of it that the young person has. In Davenant's story, the glasses are a source of deception for the wearer, who leaves common sense behind when he puts them on. In the review of "Elliotson's Principles," the glasses are a form of intentional self-delusion, committed out of sentiment or personal friendship, that prevents an honest critical appraisal. And in W.A.'s essay for churchmen, wearing rose-colored glasses entails denying or ignoring unpleasant truths in order to be liked.

Yet another attitude appears in "Quackery," in The St. James's Medley (May 1865):

A lover of fiction, and of vivid fancy, he [the auctioneer] flourishes his hammer, and by its transmuting touch converts a tumble-down cottage in a swamp into an elegant and commodious villa on the bank of a beautiful river. He considers it his duty to make the best of everything, viewing it through rose-coloured glasses; and if he does represent this or that article to be in better condition, or more valuable than it is, he does but exercise a legitimate trickery, which he considers to be the high art of his profession.

Here the rose-coloured glasses are, in effect, shared by the huckster with his audience of potential rubes: He wears them to describe the imaginary beauties of the things he is trying to sell, and the audience wears them to imagine that what he says is true.

  • Thanks, but I was not seeking more examples of its usage. My question is essentially "how did viewing the world through a pink filter come to be synonymous with only seeing the positive aspects of the view". – Marv Mills Jul 8 '15 at 9:38
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    @MarvMills: Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says of "see through rose-colored glasses": The adjectives rosy and rose-colored have been in use in the sense of "hopeful" or "optimistic" since the 1700s; the current idiom dates from the 1850s." Maybe the appeal of rose as a color is that it puts people in mind of awakening to greet the rosy-fingered dawn of a day full of possibilities. My examples were an attempt to push the date of first occurrence of the phrase to before the 1850s. – Sven Yargs Jul 8 '15 at 9:52
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This intuitive saying was probably used well before it appeared in print, that is in 1861:

From The phrase Finder:

  • ROSE-COLORED GLASSES - "Some unfortunate people never take their rose-colored glasses off, but everyone wears these spectacles occasionally.

  • This attitude of cheerful optimism, of seeing everything in an attractive, pleasant light, has always been with us, while the expression itself goes back to at least 1861, when it is first recorded in 'Tom Brown at Oxford': 'Oxford was a sort of Utopia to the Captain. He continued to behold towers, and quadrangles, and chapels, through rose-colored glasses." From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

  • Interesting that spectacles (and surely "cheerful optimism") themselves predate this by circa 400 years. I wonder what the earliest use of it would have been, and actually, what idiom was used for "cheerful optimism" before glasses were invented! – Marv Mills Jul 7 '15 at 13:18
  • I am afraid I misunderstood your question. What are you actually asking for? – user66974 Jul 7 '15 at 13:20
  • I don't think you did- You certainly probably nailed the "when", though the main thrust of the question was "How did this come to be a widely accepted idiom for "only seeing the positive", with shades or subtext of naiveté?" – Marv Mills Jul 7 '15 at 13:34
  • Well, "on the how did it come", I think, as suggested, that it was already a known expression. Plus its intuitive usage of the colour 'rose' to indicate something positive, unprejudiced and possibly good, is very strong IMO. – user66974 Jul 7 '15 at 13:38
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I have to wonder if you can trace it back to the earlier meanings of the word 'rosy' that derives from the usual red colour of roses and was equated in the 1590s to a healthy complexion (e.g. a rosy-cheeked child). Get through a plague or two and rosy=having a healthy complexion morphs by 1775 to rosy meaning a sense of happiness.

When tinted lenses come about (with wild popularity), seeing the word with a sense of happiness would be seeing a rosy world, and blaming someone's spiffy new eyewear tint a tongue-in-cheek way of describing the phenomenon.

Just an idea that matches the etymology of "rosy"

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