Q&A: The origin of ‘paint the town red’

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're on red alert…

Q: Hi AWC, when someone says they’re going to “paint the town red”, what does this mean? It’s not a graffiti spree is it?

A: Haha, no, it’s not. This idiom is defined by Macquarie Dictionary as a colloquial saying that means “to indulge in riotous entertainment”.

Q: Like rioting?

A: More like partying and sticking your head out of the limo’s roof. That kind of thing. Merriam-Webster is more tame, simply stating that it means “to go out drinking, dancing, etc”.

Q: That “etc” leaves a lot of room for mischief…

A: True. It’s always the etcetera that gets you in trouble.

Q: So, why red? Was there some legendary night that started it all?

A: Not that we can find. Macquarie goes on to say that it seems to be US in origin, with perhaps a link to an old meaning of ”paint” meaning to imbibe, or ‘painted’ meaning drunk – in particular, painting your nose red (as drunks are often depicted as having).

Q: So any more clues about when and where?

A: One theory relates to a popular and dangerous 19th century craze of steamboat racing.

Q: Like Steamboat Willie in that first Mickey Mouse cartoon that’s now out of copyright?

A: Yep. Now imagine Donald Duck is racing him in another steamboat and there is a lot of cash on the line. This happened a lot on rivers like the Mississippi and even the Hudson in New York.

Q: Where does the red paint come in?

A: The winning captain of the race would apparently yell “paint her, boys!” – prompting his crew to add extra fuel onto the fires in celebration. This would cast a red glow on the surroundings

Q: A town perhaps?

A: Precisely – painting the sky red. By the way, those steamboat races were dangerous things and often the boats themselves would end up catching on fire, with hundreds of deaths recorded during this time.

Q: Ship happens.

A: Indeed. Many of the other theories for “painting red” also relate to the glow of fire – be it on a boat or simply bonfires lit in celebration, such as on Independence Day. Again, this glow would ‘paint’ the sky red. Most experts agree that it’s in cities like New York and Chicago that first saw this phrase, with the earliest printed version in 1883.

Q: Any other theories?

A: Yes – and it’s a big one, often cited online as correct but likely to be false. It claims that the saying originated in the English town of Melton Mowbray one drunken night in 1837. The Marquis of Waterford and his drinking buddies literally went around painting the buildings and toll bars red. 

Q: So he literally painted the town red?

A: Yes, it was the sort of behaviour the Marquis was famous for – being known as the ‘Mad Marquis’. The event itself may have even happened, but it seems unlikely that the phrase originated here.

Q: Why not?

A: Too many dead ends on the etymological front – especially with it appearing strongly half a century later on the other side of the Atlantic. The tourism team of Melton Mowbray aren’t in a hurry to debunk it though.

Q: I bet they sell little pots of red paint in their information centre.

A: They probably do. 

Q: And mad marquees that blow away when you try to peg them down.

A: Maybe. By the way, this town is also undisputedly famous for its pork pies. In Cockney slang (originating in London in the mid 19th century), a pork pie is a “lie” – sometimes shortened to telling “porkies”. And that’s appropriate here in the case of the Melton Mowbray origin story, which sounds like someone’s telling porkies.

Q: So if I see someone trying to say that “paint the town red” started with a literal drunken night out in England, it’s probably a red herring. Instead coming from 1880s bonfire celebrations in America?

A: That’s right.

Q: On the subject of red things, why do we call them “red herrings” anyway?

A: This one goes all the way back to the 1680s and relates to the actual colour of herring. When it’s fresh, it is white, but it goes red when cured or preserved. It’s said that fugitives would literally use these herrings to put bloodhounds off their scent. 

Q: Are you SURE it was actual fugitives with fish? Could just be a story made up by the fugitive tourism team.

A: Haha. As for the figurative idiom, an English journalist named William Cobbett gets the credit for first using it, in 1807 – criticising the fake news surrounding Napoleon at the time. These days, mystery writers love sprinkling red herrings throughout their prose, just like the fugitives of old sprinkled them through the land..

Q: Okay, so we’ve lit bonfires and smoked herring. That’s enough flames for one day!

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