Jerome Shea       September 15, 2008      Weekend Wonk

What started me on this color business (see “Colors”) was the generally bad reputation that yellow struggles under. Never mind that yellow can be associated with gold and sunshine and buttercups and ribbons ‘round the old oak tree. Never mind that it has become a very popular color for sporty cars lately—my late, lamented Metro convertible was a brilliant yellow. On balance, yellow has suffered a bad rep, or rap, through the centuries.

Before we get to that, however, a detour through the theory of humors might be in order and might, in fact, shed some light on all this. The connection is that red, black, and yellow pick up some of their connotations from this venerable medical theory.

To be in good humor (or, conversely, to be ill-humored) might seem simply to imply cheerfulness or grouchiness. But “humor” derives from the Latin for “liquid,” meaning the four important liquids in the body, namely blood, black bile, yellow bile (choler), and phlegm. To the ancients, to be in good humor (i.e., good health) meant that these four “humors” were in balance (which would, indeed, make you cheerful!). To be in ill-humor meant that your humors were for some reason or other out of balance. (The physician’s job was to somehow bring them back into balance; for example, he might sic leeches on you or administer concoctions to purge you.) Moreover, one’s natural demeanor was indicated by one’s ruling humor, with little to be done about it. Thus, some people are naturally sanguine (blood predominating), some choleric (yellow bile), some melancholic (black bile), and some phlegmatic (phlegm). If you are naturally irritable and hard to get along with, you can blame your spleen (or liver, some held) for pumping out too much yellow bile. If your lungs produce an excess of phlegm, well, that was what made you naturally phlegmatic. If your stomach produced too much black bile, you were destined for a life that was generally melancholic, you poor mope. The theory of humors was taken seriously almost into the 19th century.

As you see above, there has been some disagreement about which organs produced which humors and which humors were associated with which of the four elements (fire, water, earth, and air). But to be sanguine (cheerful, hearty—yes, a pun) was certainly a good thing. To be phlegmatic wasn’t always bad either. You might be lazy and unmotivated, but at least you would not be inclined to fly off the handle or snap at people: you could be admirably stolid. On the other hand, there is little good to be said for one who is always melancholy, save that he deserves our pity more than our censure. The real disdain, though, we reserve for the choleric fellow—irritable, splenetic (yes, from “spleen”)—a real pain. And, as we’ve said, that comes from an excess of yellow bile. Already, we want little to do with yellow. We are jaundiced—the French for yellow is jaune—in the matter.

What I was specifically wondering about was how yellow came to stand for cowardice, as in “yellow belly” and “yellow streak,” or just calling someone “yellow.” I suspected that yellow had a bad reputation well before the cowardice connection was recorded in the 19th century. And I was right. According to the ever-helpful Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, in modern art yellow (not green?) signifies jealousy or inconstancy. Moreover, in France the doors of traitors’ dwellings were “daubed with yellow, and in some countries Jews were obliged to dress in yellow.” Most arrestingly, “[I]n Christian art, Judas is arrayed in yellow”! But that still begs the question, “Why yellow?” Was it considered a kind of besmirched white? And were Jews obliged to wear it because collectively they were accused of betraying Christ? And we are still not up to the American West, where the answer should be waiting for us. Steady on.

One explanation offered fastens specifically on “yellow belly” and suggests that frogs with their sliminess and yellow underbellies were the inspiration. Needless to say, a frog will not stand and fight you. Coward! This has the air of folk lore if not joke lore! Moving along, we come to yellow journalism, the sensational and disreputable press that flourished at the time. But yellow as in “yellow streak,” etc., was in use before then and “yellow belly” may only reflect the rhyming play (think “willy-nilly”)—easy to say and easy to remember. The Oxford Dictionary of Slang plays it safe (I think) and opines that the American usage was just a morphing of the old British connotation for yellow as jealousy or deceitfulness. Deceitful and treacherous become “cowardly”? Maybe. I hope I am wrong, but for me a racial explanation seems more likely, racial as, later, in “yellow peril” and “yellow horde.” Not content to despise and mistreat the Chinese who were flocking to California, it was an easy step to impugn their courage along with their supposed flesh color.

Again, I hope I’m wrong. But I’m not sanguine about it. In fact, it makes me rather melancholy.

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