Out of the red with the green stuff

Posted by on June 22, 2011

The language of money and the environment overlap in the word green. In a previous post, I wrote about how some businesses have turned to greentailing because it can be both economically and environmentally sound. Now the “green economy” is spreading to unexpected quarters: a recent article in Time magazine reports that Sicily’s mafia want in on the act.

The article discusses clean energy and dirty money, phrases that draw on particular metaphors I’ve written about before. Its title mentions the mafia’s “hunger for power”, a metaphor that refers in this instance to renewable energy but is apt in other ways. For one thing, when we talk about money, we often talk metaphorically about food, as Diane Nicholls’s article shows. Also, Italy is where the Slow Food movement, which promotes green living, is said to have begun.

There is an obligatory joke about how the mafia cares only for “the other kind of green”, meaning money. This nickname owes to the iconic U.S. dollar. The dollar has related slang terms like green stuff, long green and greenback, the last of which originally referred to notes printed in green and black on the back that were created during the American Civil War.

Many countries use dollars in their national currency, but greenback refers exclusively to U.S. dollars, as far as I know. A character in Saul Bellow’s A Silver Dish said: “A check? Hell with a check. Get me the greenbacks.” Notice how the informal tone in this dialogue is also conveyed through ellipsis. Normally we hear more complete versions of the idiom: “to hell with” or “the hell with”. Dropping the first word – sending us straight to hell, so to speak – stresses the casualness of the speaker’s delivery.

Green is not the only colour used in money talk. When people or companies owe money, they are said to be in the red. Then they need more green to get out of the red and into the black. The correspondence with roulette wheel colours is coincidental – and a little unfortunate, since going for broke can leave you broke (and blue) unless you’re very lucky, and especially if you’re green.

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Comments (2)
  • Your post brought back memories! My late father was a businessman (successful in the early years but found it difficult to move with the times, especially technology). The bank statement came weekly in those days and a quick glance indicated the state of his finances – almost always typed, but sometimes additional entries, like a cheque payment or withdrawal was handwritten – red if overdrawn and black if business was good that particular week. They even used a red/black biro if it was handwritten!

    Posted by Helen on 28th June, 2011
  • Thanks for sharing the memory, Helen. It just goes to show how ingrained and prevalent the colour code is, and has been for a long time. Your last remark reminds me of the classic four-colour click-pen; green was usually the last to run out…

    Posted by Stan on 28th June, 2011
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