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Color me [adjective]

Yeah? Well, MY trees are blue.

Dear Word Detective: The phrase “color me [insert word]” appears numerous times on your site. I’ve heard it and used it often myself but where, may I ask, does it come from? — Mark.

Sorry about that. I do seem to have used the phrase without explanation quite a few times in my columns. Thanks to the awesome power of The Google, I see that my website boasts one “color me envious,” one “color me cautious,” a “color me psychic,” a somewhat wobbly “color me extremely unconvinced,” and three, count ’em, three, instances of “color me stupid.” I guess “stupid” wins. But “color me” as a rhetorical device is useful. “Color me cautious,” for instance, seems more vivid, and less dismissive, than the dull “I’m skeptical.” Of course, that “color me extremely unconvinced” is pretty dismissive, just a tad shy of declaring something (in that case, a silly theory about “moolah”) to be “utter hogwash.” But it was.

The common noun “color” first appeared in English in the early 13th century, and the verb “to color” followed in the 14th. “Color” is frequently spelled “colour” in British English, reflecting its Anglo-Norman heritage, but “color” is far more frequent elsewhere. However you choose to spell it, “color” comes ultimately from Latin roots that carried the sense of “covering, concealment.”

The earliest senses of “color” were those related, as you’d expect, to hue, tint, pigment, etc., but almost immediately we also began to employ “color” in various figurative senses, usually regarding appearances, authority or other intangible aspects of society (“This [action] … would at once give the movement the colour of a general revolt,” 1941). One of the more interesting uses of “color” has been to mean “pretext” or “excuse” (“The transfer was only a colour for an advance of money,” 1855). Since the early 18th century, “color” has also been used to mean “features that make something interesting,” as in “local color” or “color commentary” in sports matches.

“Color” as a verb has been used in a variety of senses, most of which involve either literally or metaphorically applying color (either literal or figurative) to something, which brings us to “color me stupid” and similar “color me” or “color him/her/them” phrases. In its most basic sense, “color me” means “consider me” or “regard me as,” often in a jocular sense (“Me — I just left. — Color me gone.” 1963), although it can be used to impart serious emotion as well (“Well, color me stupid, because I didn’t want to believe he was seeing another woman,” T. Macmillan, 1992).

The fact that the internet is apparently awash in people looking for an explanation of “color me” phrases would tend to indicate that the technology, or lack thereof, that underlies the idiom has, sadly, largely dropped from our radar in recent years. I’m talking about coloring books for very young children (kinda like iPads, but made from paper). Children armed with a box of crayons of various colors would be instructed by the books to “color the trees green” or “color the pond blue,” thus learning to recognize the words “tree” and “pond” as well as the colors themselves. A few years of seeing such instructions and you’re ready, decades later when your husband strays, to declare “color me stupid.”

Coloring books also develop hand-eye coordination in young children, and generations of teachers urging their charges to “color inside the lines” of the drawings in coloring books have given us “color inside the lines” as a useful metaphor for “follow the rules.”

The Oxford English Dictionary dates “color me” to 1963 (and cites an unattributed example from that year in a promotion for the US TV comedy “I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster”), but, given the fact that coloring books first became available in the late 1870s, I’d be surprised if the phrase weren’t quite a bit older.


There’s no “there” thence.

Dear Word Detective: For years, I have felt smugly superior to writers who say “from whence” or “from hence” (so, err, I hope you never have), because I’ve been under the impression that “whence” and “hence” by themselves mean “from where” and “from here,” respectively. That’s why “Get thee hence!” seems perfectly grammatical to my ear, though also over-the-top 19th-century Gothic. It struck me just now that I have no hard evidence for this belief. Have I been wrong all this time, or can I go back to being smug? — Alan Clark.

Good heavens, sire, thou art laboring under a most unfortunate misapprehension; to wit, that smugness or excessive self-esteem in one’s manner regarding grammar and usage has any necessary connection to linguistic virtue. Nay, the two are frequently opposites, and even a cursory survey of commercial literature devoted to correctness in speech and writing will often reveal a multitude of witless errors, masquerading as inviolate principles, pronounced with absolute Biblical certainty. Proceeding apace to the bottom line and cutting thenceforth to the chase, most of the iron laws of language are no more eternal (or natural) than a pile of Cheez Whiz in the path of a hungry dog. So don’t sweat it. Personally, I take great pride in peppering my speech with “they” and “their” used as singular epicene pronouns. Drives the foamers nuts.

By the way, you missed a spot. In addition to “whence” (meaning “from where”) and  “hence” (“from here,” “from this time” or “for this reason”), we also have “thence,” which means basically “from there” (“I’m going to the Quickee-Mart and thence to Pizza World. Can I get you anything?”).

“Whence,” “hence” and “thence” are all very old words, from ancient Germanic roots, first appearing in Old English. The Indo-European root of “whence,” incidentally, was the interrogatory stem “qwo,” which is also connected to “when,” “who,” “where,” “which,” “why” and “how.”

“Whence,” “hence” and “thence” strike modern ears as a bit odd because they each contain a sort of built-in preposition, in most cases “from.” But they also all denote a particular point (“where,” “here” or “there”) away from which action flows in some form, which is a prescription for most modern English-speakers to dust off “from” and deploy it. This leads to all sorts of fun, most notably in the ruckus over “whence.” Since “whence” in itself means “from where,” saying “from whence” is considered, by many people, to be redundant, equivalent to saying “from from where.” On the other hand, the average modern reader or listener is far more likely to accept “from whence” without a problem, and far more likely to stumble over a simple, unadorned “whence,” which can seem a bit jarring, even to the cognoscenti (“His first stop will be Morocco, followed by Senegal, whence he will embark across the Atlantic Ocean,”, 1/12). Most readers would pause a moment at that naked “whence,” and most writers wisely avoid erecting such tiny hurdles in their narrative stream.

Consequently, “from whence” is far from rare today, has actually been commonly used since the 13th century, and was very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has been used, indeed, by some very famous writers (“Let him walke from whence he came,” Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, 1616; “From whence have we derived that spiritual profit?”, Dickens, Bleak House, 1853). “From hence” and “from thence” have been similarly popular over the centuries.

But such an illustrious pedigree hasn’t conferred immunity from censure on “from whence.” Samuel Johnson called it “a vicious mode of speech” in 1755 (though “vicious” was not as strong a word then as today), and 18th, 19th and 20th century grammarians have almost unanimously condemned “from whence.” Since “hence” has gradually lost its connotation of physical location and is now used mostly in reference to either logic in the sense of “from this flows that” (“He died broke, hence the money he stole was never repaid”) or time (“Six years hence we’ll look back at this and laugh.”), “from hence” is almost never encountered. “From thence” keeps its head down these days and is rarely spotted in the wild.

The bottom line on the “whence” versus “from whence” question is the same as that in a hundred other usage questions. There’s nothing really “wrong” with “from whence,” and it’s attained the status of a common idiom in the minds of many literate people. The only question is whether you satisfy the sticklers with a simple naked “whence,” or risk their wrath but ensure comprehension in your audience by going with “from whence.”


Me swank, you swoon.

Dear Word Detective:  I live 15 miles outside of town, which keeps me up to date on some of the billboards in our neck of the woods. The new ad that has me puzzling is for a local furniture company, running a campaign alleging that the furniture I have is deficient. The ad uses the word “swanky,” and when I saw it I immediately wanted to check your archives. No luck. Does “swanky” have an recent, amusing, pert history? Or is it just another vestigial Germanic/Norse cuss word? — Sally.

Billboards, eh? I remember (I’ve heard stories from the Ancient Ones…) when billboards were considered the Number One Menace blighting the landscape and threatening Our American Way of Life. Seriously. Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady of the US, made it her personal mission in the 1960s to beautify America’s roadside vistas. Editorials were written. Laws were passed. And the campaign worked so well that today, if you drive down any of our major suburban thoroughfares, you’ll be greeted by a parade of giant blinding full-motion LED billboards apparently designed to sell used cars to whoever lives on Mars. Oh, well.

I am intrigued, however, by the fact that the billboard you saw apparently used the word “swanky” in a positive sense, because I don’t remember encountering it in anything but a sarcastic or ironic context in quite a long time.  And if someone were to say, “My Uncle took us to a swanky restaurant downtown,” I’d assume that the speaker was signaling that the place was more pretentious than truly sophisticated.

“Swanky,” to me anyway, carries overtones of Dean Martin, Las Vegas and the Rat Pack, and I just this moment realized why that is. Back when I was a kid, a company named Swank produced all sorts of inexpensive but flashy tie clips, cuff links and other men’s accessories. Misguided relatives started giving me Swank tie clips and cuff links when I was about twelve. I know it’s hard to believe, but I have yet to wear cuff links even once in my life. Anyway, apparently Swank, Inc. now owns major brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica. Who knew?

In any case, back at your question, “swank” is a noun, a verb, and an adjective. It first appeared in English in the early 19th century as a verb meaning “to swagger, behave ostentatiously or arrogantly; to act in a superior or pretentious way” (“I met him swanking along the road, ever so genteel,” 1848). The noun “swank,” meaning “ostentatious or pretentious behavior” or simply “pretense,” appeared in the mid-19th century, as did the adjective form “swanky” (“An English producer and a London critic … in the swanky bar of the Excelsior,” 1959). The adjective “swank,” which first appeared in print in 1913, tends to be applied to hotels, restaurants etc. that are genuinely fancy; “swanky” has a bit more of a sarcastic edge to it, and is often applied to both people and places in a pejorative sense meaning “pretentious” or “boastful” (“‘I read that too,’ interrupted Ginger, ‘so you needn’t be so swanky,'” 1929).

The roots of that original verb form of “swank” are uncertain, but it was used as a dialect slang term in central and southeastern England before it was adopted into the common vernacular. There’s some evidence that “to swank,” meaning “to swagger” either literally or metaphorically, is related to the Old High German “swanc,” meaning “to swing,” and/or to the Middle High German “swanken,” meaning “to totter or sway.” If “swanc” is indeed the source, “to swank” could originally have been a reference to the swinging arms and rolling gait of a strutting, swaggering person.

Interestingly, “to swank” also appeared as school slang in Britain in the late 19th century meaning “to work hard; to study diligently” (also known in school slang at the time as “to swot,” which is simply a variant pronunciation of “to sweat”). It’s hard to see what connection exists between this use of “to swank” and “swank” meaning “to swagger or boast,” but perhaps it’s tied to the conspicuous activity and effort needed to attain high academic status.