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The color green is associated with lack of experience (i.e. novices are called “green”), as well as with envy (“green with envy”, “green-eyed monster”). Does anyone know how, when and why these associations arose?

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  • related: I'm a bit "green around the gills"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 18, 2021 at 0:46
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    For what it's worth, I cast my close vote as "needs more focus", not as insufficiently researched. It's a valid question to ask where a metaphor or simile originated, but you're asking about at least two different metaphorical usages of "green" here, and it would've been better to split them into separate questions. Oct 18, 2021 at 14:50

5 Answers 5

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Green-eyed monster

The OED has Shakespeare’s Othello (a1616) as the first green-eyed monster:

O beware iealousie. It is the greene eyd monster.

Shakespeare earlier used monsterless green-eyed to allude to jealousy in The Merchant of Venice (1600):

Shyddring feare, and greene-eyed iealousie.

The OED says this is "apparently arising from association of jealousy with wrathful or choleric behaviour caused (in the theory of the humours) by an excess of choler or yellow bile".

And their third sense of green, adj. says:

  1. Of the complexion: having a pale, sickly, or bilious hue, indicative of fear, envy, ill humour, or sickness (also in green and wan, green and pale). Also in extended use. See also green sickness n.

Noting also:

With reference to envy, chiefly in green with envy (also jealousy) at Phrases 8, green eye n. at Compounds 1d(a) (yellow being the traditional colour of jealousy).

Their first such (non-envy?) green is C Brown (a1275):

His bodi þat wes feir & gent & his neb suo scene Wes bi-spit & al to-rend, His rude wes worþen grene.

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The origin of the sense “novice” is from fruit and vegetables which when are green, are generally unripe, immature:

From c. 1200 as "covered with grass or foliage." From early 14c. of fruit or vegetables, "unripe, immature;" and of persons, "of tender age, youthful, immature, inexperienced;" hence "gullible, immature with regard to judgment" (c. 1600).

(Etymonline)

The sense of green associated with envy appears to derive from Shakespeare who used the expressions in his works:

Shakespeare described envy as the green sickness (Anthony and Cleopatra, 3:2), but the current phrase (green with envy) dating from the mid-1800s, (in a novel by Henry William Herbert), is the one most often heard.

(Dictionary.com)

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    FWIW, Dictionary.com seems to be out of its depth there; every actual Shakespeare-footnote I can dig up says that "the green-sickness" in Antony is either a simple hangover, or (in more dirty-minded modern annotations) an STD. "Green-sickness" also shows up in Capulet's rant in Romeo and Juliet 3:5, where the sexual connotation is more obvious. Anyway, "green-sickness" certainly doesn't indicate "envy" in either A+C or R+J. Oct 18, 2021 at 3:42
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Jealousy, the green-eyed monster

In Othello, Act 3, Scene 3, Iago says

O beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

Source: No Sweat Shakespere

The green novice

I've always thought of this in terms of a growing plant. The newest leaves and sprouts are often green. But as the plants mature, the sprouts turn brown and the leaves turn into autumn colors.

This is a metaphor for human development. A novice is inexperienced, and like the green leaf or sprout. As such, s/he is more gullible and prone to foolish decisions.

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    100% agree with the 'green sprout' explanation, but the Othello quote still leaves open the question of where the jealousy association came from, unless you're saying that this is the original source? That seems... dubious.
    – Jim Mack
    Oct 17, 2021 at 1:24
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    @JimMack The OP asked for associations, and I'm 52% certain that the Bard is the where and when. M-W says this phrase was coined c. 1616 (at merriam-webster.com/dictionary/green-eyed%20monster) and this page (phrases.org.uk/meanings/green-eyed-monster.html) says Shakespeare "possibly coined" it. (That page also gives a why the word "green" is used, but it sounds like a folk etymology.)
    – rajah9
    Oct 17, 2021 at 2:20
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Meta comment: Right now you've really asked two completely different questions ("green = envy" and "green = novice"). It would have been better to split them up — and you would have gotten more fake Internet points by doing so, too! Anyway, I'm going to answer only the "envy" question.

Original source: The Guardian 2021-02-14.

It seems that the green-with-envy idiom is at least known in European languages other than English; although admittedly that could just be influence from Shakespeare at this point. (Envy is reportedly green in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish... It's yellow in German and Hungarian.) The original provenance is the four humors theory of Empedocles, Hippocrates, et al., circa 400 BC:

  • Red blood from the liver makes you sanguine
  • Yellow bile (that is, gall) from the gallbladder makes you choleric (or "bilious")
  • Black bile from the spleen makes you melancholy (or "splenetic," in its archaic sense)
  • Phlegm from the stomach makes you phlegmatic

Interestingly, while blood and yellow bile are still recognized as things, "black bile" seems to be wholly mythical; and there is at least some debate as to what the Greeks really meant by "phlegm."

Anyway, the ancient Greeks certainly had this notion that there was some yellow (yellow-green?) substance that could make you irritable and spiteful. And so, 400 years later, we get a Latin poet associating envy with the green of gall:

Ovid's Metamorphoses 2.770–780 (Latin circa 8 AD), translated to English by Arthur Golding (1567):

There saw she Envie sit within fast gnawing on the flesh
Of Snakes and Todes, the filthie foode that keepes hir vices fresh.
[...]
Hir bodie leane as any Rake. She looked eke askew.
Hir teeth were furde with filth and drosse, hir gums were waryish blew.
The working of hir festered gall had made hir stomacke greene.
And all bevenimde was hir tongue. No sleepe hir eyes had seene.

William Shakespeare knew and loved Ovid's Metamorphoses. (I was prepared for the chain to have a weak link here, but guess what? Shakespeare's familiarity with Ovid, in both Golding's translation and the original Latin, is well documented and widely accepted.) So while it's possible that Shakespeare reinvented this envy-spite-gall-yellow-green connection just based on the science of the time, it's actually even more likely that he read it in Ovid first! And Shakespeare went wild with the motif. It appears in at least three of his plays.

Romeo and Juliet (c. 1591–1596):

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–1598):

How all the other passions fleet to air,
As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair,
And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy!

Othello (c. 1603–1604):

Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

From then on, the "green-eyed monster" was well established in English idiom.

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  • While it has been a very long time since I drank to excess, I do recall that in the most dire of my emetic moments, bile was indeed laced with black.
    – Peter Wone
    Oct 18, 2021 at 6:36
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I would personally associate green for novice more with young woody plants than with vegetables. Note (medical) 'greenstick fracture', which is the type of bone fracture that parallels how young, 'green', wood breaks (stays connected) rather than the breaks that match old 'brown' (my word) wood (Snaps across). Likewise 'green shoots' for new growth.

That is not to say the vegetable analogy is wrong. May all be part of a wider picture.

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