Q&A: Why ‘rose-coloured glasses’?

Why are they called rose-coloured glasses

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 coming up roses…

Q: Hi AWC, a lot of roses were sold this week.

A: Most likely, yes. Many florists make a large chunk of their income from Valentine’s Day.

Q: My sister is scared of roses. No one knows where it stemmed from.

A: Groan.

Q: It’s bloomin’ annoying.

A: Please stop.

Q: Okay, well how about this: Where did “Roses are red, violets are blue” come from?

A: That first appeared in 1784 in a collection of nursery rhymes called Gammer Gurton’s Garland as “Roses are red, Violets are blue. The honey’s sweet, And so are you.” Modern versions tend to replace honey with sugar.

Q: “Roses are red, Violets are blue. Sugar is sweet, like Diabetes type 2.”

A: Yes, haha. Anything that rhymes with “blue” is fair game.

Q: Do you have another example?

A: “Roses are red, Violets are blue. We do the A, and you do the Q.”

Q: Nawwwww, that was beautiful.

A: So, shall we discuss other rosy topics while we’re here?

Q: Absolutely! Like, what’s the deal with “rose-coloured glasses”? Surely they don’t actually work?

A: Well no, they’re figurative rather than literal. Someone who sees the world through “rose coloured (or tinted) glasses” is someone who is overly optimistic and cheery. 

Q: How old is the phrase?

A: Good question. The concept of things being “rose-coloured” – to mean “cheerful” – first appeared in the 1770s, likely taken from the French “couleur de rose” which was used in this way in poetry. The concept of viewing through “rose-coloured glasses” came along later – around 1830. Although back then, they were referred to as “rose-coloured spectacles”. It is a phrase that continues to be used, mainly outside North America.

Q: Okay, what about the phrase, “everything’s coming up roses”?

A: Ah, well that one IS American in origin – becoming popular in the 1950s to mean that things are turning out great. It comes directly from a song by the same name in the musical Gypsy. The lyrics read: “Things look swell, things look great, Gonna have the whole world on a plate. Starting here, starting now Honey, everything's coming up roses.”

Q: Speaking of songs, what about when Jon Bon Jovi croons that he’ll lay you down in a “bed of roses”?

A: This idiom simply implies a pleasant or favourable situation.

Q: Well, JBJ is involved, so duh.

A: Right okay. The saying actually dates all the way back to a Christopher Marlowe poem first published in 1599. Back then, he too was talking about making an actually bed from roses (and a thousand fragrant posies), along with making a woollen gown, myrtle-embroidered cap, gold-buckled slippers and a belt made from straw and ivy, all while melodious birds sung madrigals.

Q: That’s quite the Disney princess moment there.

A: Indeed. To be fair, the beds back then probably had terrible lumbar support, so good on him for giving it a go. These days, while Bon Jovi went fairly literal in their song, “bed of roses” is mostly used figuratively for anything pleasant or easy.

Q: Example?

A: Google gives a good one: “Life in the royal family is a bed of roses.”

Q: Hmmm, depends on which royal you are at the moment.

A: Good point. By the way, sometimes you see it used in reverse, so something difficult might be described as “not all roses”.

Q: I’ve also heard that if someone is successful, they come out “smelling of roses”. Although, maybe that was just my aunt who ran a popular florist business for many years…

A: Haha, no you’re right. That phrase is American in origin and is well documented from the 1960s. It relates to being successful or untainted, often after a challenging experience. For example a politician may somehow emerge “smelling of roses” after a scandal.

Q: Ooooh what was the scandal?

A: We just made it up!

Q: Okay, no comment, sure I get it. Anyway, that reminds me of people also saying to “stop and smell the roses”. Origin story?

A: This first appeared in the 1960s meaning to slow down and appreciate life. It appears to have been adapted from a phrase in an autobiography by golfer Walter Hagen, where he wrote: “Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” 

Q: Wow, so simply stopping to smell the flowers is a modern thing?

A: Well, people have smelt flowers as long as they’ve had noses, but yes, associating it with this concept is quite new. Curiously, in recent decades an odd mix of this phrase and the 1940s idiom “wake up and smell the coffee” (meaning to become aware of something) has resulted in the hybrid, “wake up and smell the roses”. We would recommend steering clear of that one.

Q: Well, I think we ‘rose’ to the occasion today. I’m off to buy some rose-coloured glasses. Surely the world will look better through them.

A: Anything’s worth a try…

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