What colour is livid?

For many of us, that may seem an odd question. “Furious is a colour?” (Linguists know that colorless green ideas sleep furiously, but most others are unaware of this.) We know the word pretty much exclusively as a descriptor of someone who is enraged. It is a lovely, nearly symmetrical, v-necked, candle-lit word, yes, but also one ending in that –id that shows up on stupid and several other not-desirable words, and we can always feel it vibrating with delicious ire. So when we are introduced to the idea that there is a colour called livid, we make the connection that this colour is the colour of fury.

OK, so what colour is fury? What colour is rage?

The answer comes readily enough to many people. Allow me to give two quotes from AA Gill, a travel-and-food writer with a razor-sharp tongue and a very well developed vocabulary:

The jam was thin and formed pools in the butter and tasted intensely of strawberries, not the thick, livid red anonymous fruit of England. (“Why I love Paris”)

Steak houses used to be leathery, clubbable lounges with cartoons of dead customers on the walls and faux Victorian paintings of obese cattle, staffed by ancient, permanently enraged waiters with faces as livid as well-hung sirloin and aprons that went from nipple to ankle. (“Steak Shows Its Muscle”)

There can be no doubt: Gill, like many others, means a red like blood and meat and cooked overripe berries. Vascular, florid. Vivid. Of course livid is vivid: just listen to it! It is vivid like living and loving, as over-rich as a liver; indeed, it is lurid. No?

Say, do you watch crime shows such as CSI? Do you recognize the word lividity? What do they use this word in judging?

The colour of corpses.

And do you know the phrase white with rage?

When people get angry, the blood runs to their faces. When they get very angry, the blood drains from their faces. A person whose face has gone red is mainly disposed to shouting and can be dealt with calmly. But if you should happen to see an angry person turn a whiter shade of pale, clear the vicinity immediately; Tarantino-style violence is very likely to ensue.

But wait, there’s more. Our word livid comes from a Latin word referring to a bluish-grey colour, the colour of a bruise. From the leadenness of that hue it shifted over time to mean pale. If you look up livid on Visual Thesaurus, you will see it has connections in four directions: black-and-blue; blanched, white, bloodless, ashen; light; and angry.

Thanks to that bruising, lividity names a discoloration caused by blood coagulating under the skin. This is one of the things that happen at a predictable time after death: Latin livor mortis. The skin in these areas turns… purplish-red.

Oh, for heaven’s sake! Yes, another colour.

Meanwhile, the association with rage has led to the ‘red’ sense being so common it has even been added to some dictionaries. Might as well – if AA Gill is using it that way, you can be sure many other educated users are too.

So livid is or isn’t lurid. Oh, by the way: lurid has two dictionary definitions. One is ‘glowing red’. The other, older sense (right from the Latin) is ‘wan, ghastly, yellow’. So livid and lurid simultaneously are and aren’t and aren’t and are roughly the same colour. Which is or isn’t vivid.

Divilish, isn’t it?

4 responses to “livid

  1. This post was delightful – which, by the way, must have a colour association. Maybe a nice lemon yellow.

  2. Pingback: Race, skin color, and identity in Mexico | JAPANsociology

  3. fantastic article – this made my morning!

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