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Is Envy Always Green?

The colour was first associated with envy about 2,700 years ago and today holds true across numerous cultures, but not all. And colour references are a multi-cultural way of classifying subjects and emotions.

The ancient Greeks believed that envy or jealousy was caused by overproduction of bile, giving the complexion a greenish hue. In the seventh century BC, Sappho described an ex lover as green with envy.

Over a thousand years later, in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Portia says:

How all the other passions fleet to air,

As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair, And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy!

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the personification of Envy, upon seeing beautiful Minerva:

A hoard of gall her inward parts possess’d,

And spread a greenness o’er her canker’d breast

There are various translations of Ovid, and they don’t all refer to green. The first translation from Latin directly to English was Arthur Golding’s in 1567, and it does use green:

The working of hir festered gall had made hir stomacke greene.

So the use of green to denote envy in the translation of Metamorphoses pre-dates Shakespeare’s writings, albeit by about 30 years. So, that's the history and sets the stage; afterall, the whole world is one of those. But, what about today's various cultures around the world? Are they all green with envy?

Italy: Yes, they say green out of envy: “verde dall’invidia.

Germany: No, they say that hope is green, yellow is envy, blue is being faithful and red is, obviously, love. Germans go “gelb vor Neid” – yellow with envy. Funnily enough, there is also the saying “grün vor Neid”, green with envy … but “grün ist die Hoffnung”, “hope is green”.

Spain: In Spanish “poner verde a alguien” is “to make somebody green” and means “to slag off”, but green is also the colour of hope. Also “películas verdes”, “green movies” are “dirty” = pornographic movies. In the UK and USA, the porno reference would be blue (but in China such movies are yellow).

Netherlands: A familiar Dutch expression is “Looking green from jealousy.”

Scandinivia: In Sweden, it's “Grön av avundsjuka” - green of envy. Same thing in Danish, verbatim. “Grøn af misundelse” = green of envy. Ditto Norway.

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