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Why is the colour green often associated with negativity? Green is paired with jealousy, envy, vomit, immaturity, etc. Yet it is the colour of growth and freshness. In other words, the natural association of the colour green is with something positive.

This is true down to its etymology, as the OED reports that the same Old German root grô- forms the basis for green, grass, and growth. And it says of green that "the associations with verdure, freshness, newness, health, and vitality are widespread among the Germanic languages."

But, in English, (besides its use as growth) it is often symbolic of something negative, especially disease, which in some senses is the opposite of growth. Why is this? Is the origin of this association known?

Etymonline suggests that green is the "color of jealousy at least since Shakespeare (1596)" (how/why exactly?). Could this be the source? If not, are there other explanations?

Note: yes, other colours can be associated with both positive and negative things, but this question asks about green.

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    I dispute your assertion: green is sometimes associated with negativity, but other times (and probably somewhere near as often) with positive things. Look at all the emphasis on "green" (i.e., ecology-friendly) practices and technologies. And for a billion Muslims, green describes the state of the inhabitants of paradise. – Robusto Oct 2 '12 at 19:45
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    What makes green particularly negative? Feeling blue means feeling sad, in the red means needing money, a black heart means sinister, being yellow means being cowardly... many different colors have both positive and negative nuances, depending on context. – J.R. Oct 2 '12 at 19:47
  • @Robusto I have mentioned the growth and freshness aspect of it in my question. I find that a natural association thanks to the abundance of chlorophyll and all the good things that come off it. However, there is no such natural explanation that I can think of for the others. IMO, the Islamic connection is better explained here. – coleopterist Oct 2 '12 at 20:07
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    Doesn't seem all that unnatural to me - ever witnessed anyone getting seasick? Anyhow, you might find this interesting. – J.R. Oct 2 '12 at 20:53
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    related: I'm a bit “green around the gills” – Mari-Lou A Dec 25 '16 at 20:04
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+50

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) acknowledges "the natural association of the colour green is with something positive," that is, with growth, and with "verdure, freshness, newness, health, and vitality", which association it says is "widespread among the Germanic languages", of which English is one. The word green is "borrowed from Germanic," says the OED. Of green in Germanic languages, the OED says that green is

Cognate with Old Frisian grēne , grēn green, fresh, Middle Dutch groene , groen , grone , grune green, fresh, youthful, inexperienced, (of food) raw, untreated, also groene , groen , grone , grune (noun) green, greenness, greenery, verdure, grassy ground, vegetables, greens, green fabric (Dutch groen ), Old Saxon grōni green (Middle Low German grȫne green, (as noun) green, greenness, greenery, verdure, grassy ground, fruit, vegetables, greens), Old High German gruoni , gruone , gruani , cruone green (as the colour of plants, some precious stones, the sea), fresh, healthy, (of food) raw, untreated, also gruonī (noun) green, greenness, greenery, verdure, health, vigour (Middle High German grüene , German grün ), Old Icelandic grœnn green (as the colour of verdure, etc.), fresh, hopeful, good, Old Swedish grön green, fresh, new (Swedish grön ), Old Danish grøn green, fresh (Danish grøn)

Note cognate does not mean "borrowed", it means "Descended from the same original language; of the same linguistic family. Of words: Coming naturally from the same root, or representing the same original word." (OED). In the case of green and grass and growth they all descend from Old Germanic root *gra- : grô- , which proto word *gra- is cognate with the Old Aryan *ghrā- to grow). So we're on solid grounds to say that there is an etymological association of green with grass and growth.

In addition, people take it as idiomatic that grass is green, even if "on the other side", where it is always said to be "greener" and in the axiom "as the grass is green" (example: "surely as the grass is green...")

The question, as asked, using words from the actual OP:

But, in English, (besides its use as growth) [green] is often symbolic of something negative. Why is this?

The OED acknowledges this "quite different and somewhat contrary development" and notes that it

probably result[s] in large part ultimately from association with ancient Greek χλωρός green, pale (see chloro- comb. form1) and with ancient and medieval medical traditions; compare classical Latin viridis ‘green’ used of a ‘greenish’ complexion taken as a sign of illness or excess of bile.

Speaking of bile, note that a reflection of the Latin viridis is contained in the English word biliverdin, "a green bile pigment that is formed by catabolism of hemoglobin and converted to bilirubin in the liver." The -verdin in biliverdin comes from viridis.

We have the disease cholera, which etymology online says is ultimately from this same khloros (that is, χλωρός) "pale green, greenish-yellow (my emphasis)." The related Greek term khole means bile. And the "The excretions in this disease [cholera] were freqently described, especially, in early use, as containing large quantities of bile" (OED).

As does jaundice, which since the Middle Ages was also called green jaundice

a disorder accompanied by greenish discoloration of the skin (cf. green sickness n. 1); specifically a form of jaundice in which there is accumulation of the green bile pigment biliverdin, usually as a result of biliary obstruction.

What about this green sickness? This was one of the most common diseases in the Middle Ages; it remained so until the 19th century when it was not diagnosed anymore and it has since become the forgotten disease. Green sickness was also called chlorosis, again pointing to the Greek influence.

Under green disease the OED says:

A disease characterized by greenish discoloration of the skin =chlorosis

and gives references from 1547.

Under chlorosis the OED says:

A disorder believed to occur almost exclusively in young, virginal women soon after puberty, characterized by a greenish pallor of the skin, cessation or irregularity of menstruation, and weakness, often accompanied by pica or other disturbance of appetite; an instance or case of this. Also called green sickness.

So yes, half the human race, that is, all young virgins could succomb to green disease, which was also equated with love sickness. It’s Not Easy Being Green: 3 Cures for Green Sickness, “The Virgin’s Disease” says that

Green sickness was so common, many women had cures written in their home recipe books.

The same site, dependent on Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England relates that one cure to green sickness was copulation (with one's husband); that is: virgins needed to get married and consummate the marriage. (See also The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis, and the Problems of Puberty.)

Note that even Shakespeare's Juliet was admonished by her father ('Capulet')

To go with Paris to Saint Peter's Church
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green-sickness carrion! out, you baggage!
You tallow-face!

(Act III, Scene 5)

Shakespeare also refers to the "green-sickness" in Antony and Cleopatra (III, 6), Pericles (IV, 6), and Henry IV Part 2 (IV, 3).

The juxtaposition of green with pale, and one supposes illness, occurs in MacBeth Act I, Scene 7:

Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress'd yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale...

And Charles Dickens writes a letter in 1843:

I am at this moment deaf in the ears, hoarse in the throat, red in the nose, green in the gills,..and fractious in the temper from a most intolerable and oppressive cold.

which is the first recorded example in the OED of green around (also about, at, in) the gills. At the time of the letter, the use of green to mean sickness was well established.

As far as other "negative things," such as jealousy, envy, they flow from the same "development" (see above) as do sickness and illness:

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).

The use of green-eyed jealousy meant or implied being sick with it. If someone is 'green with envy' they are 'sick with envy'.

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    That made for a green and pleasant read! – tchrist Dec 28 '16 at 15:11
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Any given color can no doubt be associated with many things. I don't disagree that a natural association of the color green is with growth, but what makes you say *the" natural association? Yes, green is the color of leaves and moss and thus it seems natural to associate it with growth and abundance. But green is also the color of the puss from gangreene and people who are desperately ill sometimes have a green tinge, so green is equally naturally the color of sickness. In the United States our money has been green for a century or more so Americans often use the color green to represent money or wealth. (A common slogan of those who say their business is uninterested in the race of its customers or employees is, "We don't care about black or white, just green.") Green is commonly understood to mean permission or progress because a green traffic light means go. (Or maybe a green traffic light means "go" because the color green was associated with permission -- I can't say which came first.)

I suspect you could say the same about many colors. "Black" is often associated with the unknown or fear, presumably because we can't see in the dark. But it is also associated with finanacial solvency, because of the old practice of writing positive monetary amounts in black ink and negative amounts in red ink. Etc.

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    +1, I like your answer, but I have noticed that you forgot that green is the colour of the skin of spatial aliens :) – user19148 Oct 2 '12 at 21:28
  • Thanks! But the answer to my question lies within [this link] (phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/1/messages/2195.html) provided by J.R. All the other associations cited in your answer are, IMHO, "artificial". The choice of green in traffic lights is explained here. – coleopterist Oct 3 '12 at 5:10
  • @coleopterist I agree that green as the color of money and traffic lights is "artificial" in the sense of man-made and probably aribtrary. But green as the color of pus and of sick people is certainly not. Again, you're picking one occurrence of the color green -- chlorophyll -- and declaring it THE natural thing that should be the inevitable only thing that should come to mind when we think of the color green, and then attaching one subjective meaning to that instance -- life and growth and vitality -- and insisting that that is THE meaning that should come to mind. ... – Jay Oct 3 '12 at 14:11
  • ... But why shouldn't I think of sickly green pus when I think of the color green? Or if I do think of leaves and grass, rather than think of growth and freshness, why shouldn't I think of "nuisance"? If I lived in a jungle, I might well think of growing things as bothers that have to be hacked away with a machete every time I want to walk anywhere. As a homeowner I often think of grass as something that has to be mowed constantly. Etc. – Jay Oct 3 '12 at 14:15
  • @Carlo_R. Where did you get the crazy idea that aliens are green? Everyone knows that aliens are gray. arcturi.com/GreyArchives.html – Jay Oct 3 '12 at 14:23
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I will try to be short. Healthy nature is (usually, in moderate climates) green. Green trees, green grass, all of this is considered fresh, healthy, vibrant. Brown or grey grass or trees remind us of late autumn or winter, when the nature largely "dies" and is reborn the next spring.

On the other hand, vomit is greenish (due to stomach excretions, bile, etc.). Human corpses are greenish in advanced stages of decomposition, due to interplay of stale (decomposing) blood and skin pigmentatation. For the same reasons, bruises turn greenish in time (fresh bruises are bluish). Very sick people may have greenish-yellowish hue due to presence of bile in the blood (liver failure). So yes, green, when relating to human appearance is a very bad thing.

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You may associate green with disease because surgeons often dress in green. They do so because bloodstains are less bright and scary on dark green or blue but both blood and fat (which is yellow) will show up in the textile.

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