Q&A: The many origins of being ‘green’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have green pieces..

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about being green?

A: It’s not easy being green.

Q: Thanks Kermit. I was just wondering how it came to be the umbrella term for all things environmentally friendly?

A: That’s a great question and it’s suggested that this “Earth is fragile” focus started back on Christmas Eve 1968.

Q: Oh really? Did Santa produce too many emissions or something?

A: Nope, although it did come from someone flying through the sky.

Q: Superman? Oh, wait, Green Lantern?

A: Haha, no, not comic book heroes. It was a photo taken by Bill Anders – one of the astronauts on Apollo 8 as it orbited the moon. His image, later named “Earthrise”, showed just how lonely and fragile Earth was out in the blackness of space. It sparked worldwide environmental awareness overnight.

Q: Wait, so by Christmas morning??

A: Okay, not literally overnight. But very quickly.

Q: Right, got it.

A: As a result of this new perspective, the first Earth Day took place in 1970 and a group named Greenpeace was founded in 1971 – sparking the link between “green” and the environment ever since.

Q: Wow – so it’s quite recent really. In the context of humanity.

A: Absolutely. Here’s another fun fact. It wasn’t until 1956 that the word “environment” began to have anything at all to do with ecology! Until that point it was simply related to one’s surroundings, or “environs”.

Q: Okay, so what about some other meanings for “green”? Like being sick?

A: This one is much older – in fact, people have been feeling green for centuries. It’s been in English since as far back as the mid-1200s, in relation to the greenish complexion of a sick person.

Q: What about being new? If I’m green at a job, for example?

A: The idea of green meaning to be inexperienced came along later – around 1600. By this point, the term had been applied to many fruits and vegetables, with “green” often observed as the “unripened” state of many (e.g. tomatoes, bananas etc) – and applied to an “unripe human” instead.

Q: And green meaning “go” – when did that become a thing?

A: British railways in the mid-1800s used red or green lights for signalling at night instead of flags. Then, when traffic lights came along in the early 20th century, the term “green light” – as in gaining permission – followed in 1937.

Q: What about a “green room” – is that more recent?

A: Actually, no. The green room (or “greenroom”) as a room for actors when not on stage has many supposed origins. One is that it made its debut in London’s Theatre Royal in 1701 – with English actor Colley Cibber famously referring to the recreation room as ‘the green room’ due to its colour.

Q: Other origin stories?

A: Others go back further still – including the actors’ waiting room painted green at Blackfriars Theatre during Shakespearean times (1599) and London’s Cockpit-in-Court theatre in 1662 including a room covered in green material. There is however no doubt about its origins in British theatre. 

Q: It still doesn’t explain the green.

A: True. Some suggest a calming influence, but that’s also disputed. Another theory links it to the stage that at one point was known as “the green”. Or perhaps there was just a sale on green paint.

Q: Oh wait, could it be because of the “limelight”?

A: Haha, nice guess. But that kind of theatre spotlight – made from incandescent calcium oxide – wasn’t invented until 1816, much later. In any case, these days, a “green room” is almost never green – it simply denotes any room backstage for performers to relax in.

Q: What about green being linked to jealousy?

A: The idea of green relating to jealousy goes all the way back to the Greeks, and its link to an overproduction of bile. But it was Shakespeare who made it famous by first penning the term “green with envy” in his play, Othello.

Q: I have one final question, and it’s linked once more to environmentalism – regarding its continued melting. And that’s why a land of ice and snow was originally named Greenland!

A: Haha, a good question. And while there is evidence to suggest there were actually more trees back when the Viking explorers discovered it in the late 900s, the other documented reason for it being named “Groenland” (Old Norse) was that “it would induce settlers to go there, if the land had a good name”.

Q: So it was just a big phoney advertising campaign!

A: Essentially, yes! After all, it’s not easy being Greenland…

Q: Haha. Any other fun facts?

A: Well, rude or dirty jokes are usually known as “blue” to most of the Western world. But in the Philippines, these are instead called “green” jokes. It kind of makes more sense – after all, green is to be sick or “off colour”.

Q: True. Okay, here’s a green joke. What did the green grape say to the purple grape?

A: What?

Q: “Breathe!!” Bahahaha.

A: …

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon


Nice one! You've added this to your cart