Pink Used To Be Yellow (No, Really)


Look up the word pink in the dictionary, and you’ll probably find a lot more definitions than you might have expected.

As well as being the name of a pale red color, a pink can be a small flat-bottomed sailing vessel, a juvenile salmon, a chaffinch, a decorative hole or eyelet, a stab with a dagger, a foppish dandy, a tiny fragment, and (thanks to Chicago’s Pinkerton detective agency) a private eye. Besides that, as a verb pink can be used to mean “to narrow” (especially the eyes), “to wink or blink,” “to make a metallic rattling noise,” “to apply rouge,” and “to attach or cut a decorative trim” (which is why scissors with jagged blades are called pinking shears).

But of all the word’s meanings, the oldest on record is one that appears in only the most comprehensive dictionaries: pink used to be yellow. Or rather, pink used to be the name of a murky yellow-green color—or, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains it: "A yellowish or greenish-yellow lake pigment made by combining a vegetable colouring matter with a white base, such as a metallic oxide."

A “lake” pigment like this is an organic dye or artist’s pigment made insoluble by combining the organic material required with a metallic compound. (In this context, lake has nothing to do with bodies of water, but instead comes from lac, a dark red resinous substance produced by certain trees.) It just so happens that the pigment the name pink was originally attached to was made from vegetable matter that created a murky greenish-yellow tinge.

In this sense, the word pink dates back to the early 1400s at least, and in fact, it wasn’t until the mid-17th century that pink came to refer to the pale reddish color it does today. But why the change in meaning? And why, for that matter, name either color pink at all?

Admittedly, no one is entirely sure of the answer to either of those questions, but one very plausible theory is that the name pink (for obvious yellow-colored reasons) might have derived from an older German word, pinkeln, meaning “to urinate.” This earlier, murky-yellow version of pink has never actually disappeared from the language, and remains in place in various forms in the niche vocabularies of printers, designers, and artists and watercolorists especially. But the reddish version of pink has long since replaced it in everyday use—and the reason for that change might lie with one of the most famous figures from English history.

The earliest likely record of the pale-red pink we know today comes from the English Restoration dramatist James Howard, who described a pair of pink gloves in the script to his comedy The English Monsieur in 1666. For Howard to use the word in this context so visibly, we can presume that the pale-red version of pink was already fairly well established in the language by then, suggesting that its origins likely lie in the early 17th century—and the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

It’s believed that Elizabeth I was particularly fond of carnations, or “pinks,” a pale-red flower in the Dianthus genus probably named after its slightly notched or “pinked” petals. (Though now cultivated or dyed in many colors, carnations were originally pink.) Elizabeth’s fondness for the carnation—traditionally considered a symbol of chastity, marriage, and a love of God—helped make these flowers very popular in the late Tudor period, and carnations were grown and sold all across Elizabethan England for use in everything from perfume-making to flavoring wine. It’s presumed that it was this widespread popularity that helped to establish the flowers’ bright pink color with the name pink, and thereby forced the older yellow-colored version of the word to the etymological sidelines.

Was Queen Elizabeth’s fondness for carnations really enough to permanently change the meaning of the word pink? It’s certainly possible—and it remains perhaps the most plausible explanation we have for one of the strangest changes in meaning in the dictionary.

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

NASA // Public Domain
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.


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