Ruddy Rubescent Red

RedIf you’re thinking about figurative language (and who isn’t?), you’ve probably bumped your head on the thought words have meaning, but whose? And too much meaning for their own good, or ours. We pick words like bananas, firm but yellow, not too green, ready to eat. We try to narrow our meaning, so as not to be misunderstood. Ambiguity is not valued in certain kinds of communication, but confusion is hard to avoid because readers puzzle over variations in a word’s meaning, and may disagree or simply read differently the meaning or significance of even the simplest of words.

It’s hard to stop words from connoting, from loitering. Words hang about, and we’re unsure what they’re going to mean next. Words are two-faced, and when you talk out of both sides of your mouth, you’re really asking for trouble. Denote this, literally, as if we are running our tongue around an auricle. The connotative meaning of a word is its suggestive, associative meaning, definitions farther down the word’s trough in the dictionary, the entry to the word corral. You might find a connection in its etymology between a word’s denotative and connotative meaning. The suggestive meaning of a word might include a cultural, technical, auditory, or personal source. Connotative meanings may be widespread and commonly understood, or limited to idiomatic or idiosyncratic inflections understood by only a few.

Try on, for example, the word red, the color, one of the three primary colors, located on the color wheel between orange and purple. What are some connotative meanings of the word red? Ideas, emotions, or things we might associate with red: shame, fear, or embarrassment; danger, risk, or emergency; love, passion, or temperature; emotion, anger, or temper; communism, US Republican states, or wine; blood, sacrifice, or courage; prostitution, fast cars, or valentines. Of course we think context is also a kind of corral, but its fences are weak.

Figurative language involves more than connotative meanings, but the difference between denotation and connotation provides an effective illustration of the difference between literal and figurative language, and since one of the characteristics of literature is the conspicuous use of figurative language, an early awareness that words may mean more than we want them to mean is useful. At the same time, literature involves more than the use of figurative language. Flaubert is very much interested in literal meaning and in literal descriptions. A Simple Heart might be described as a realistic portrait. But when Flaubert describes Felicite early in the novella, she is said to wear a red dress all through the year. A perspicacious reader may ask why a red dress? Why not a blue or green or white dress?

The narrator of “The Custom House” introductory chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter seems to be a perspicacious reader:

But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth, — for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag, — on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were  signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.

At first glance, we want nothing past denotative meaning. We get the literal meaning, forget the word, and move on. We don’t even bother rolling the word around in our mouth, tasting it before we swallow a meaning, minding our manners. The sentence got us to where we wanted to go; no need to get out and look under the hood. And we often keep connotative meanings, when we do experience them, to ourselves. And denotative meanings are fairly reliable, often going unchanged for long periods of time, while connotative meanings may change relatively quickly. We might first associate the color red with love, roses, and amorous adventures, but when Stephen Crane titled his novel about the Civil War The Red Badge of Courage, we may safely assume he was thinking the color of red might suggest something more along the lines of fear, blood, violence, and sacrifice. In the earlier parts of the 20th Century, and particularly during the 1950’s in the US, the word red was often used to suggest an association with communism, as in “the Red Scare”; a reference to a “red state” today appears to reverse that connotation. And then there’s true blue, Mary’s color.

For some reason, for Robert Burns, in his poem “A Red, Red Rose,” a single red was inadequate. Why does he repeat the word red in the title and the first line? Does he simply mean a very red rose?

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June…

For William Blake, in his poem “The Sick Rose,” primary red also seemed inadequate. How might our reaction to the poem change if Blake had said “Of red joy” rather than “Of crimson joy”?

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Is Burns’s rose blushing? Is Blake’s crimson closer to the color of blood than red? How might our reading of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” change if the line read “Of bloody joy”?

Even if we don’t make an effort to think consciously about the effects of words upon our reading experience, connotative meanings influence our comprehension and reaction. It is difficult to avoid the effects of connotation, of suggestive meanings. Remember the effect of the sound of fingernails being scraped on edge across the face of one of the green chalkboards back in grammar school? Words make noise. Noise soothes or grates. Words have texture and color and flavor. Some words are soft, mushy, others strong, firm. We like some words; we dislike others. When we get a bunch of words together we don’t like, we might say poetry, and spit them out. Or there’s been a stampede, words running ruddy and rubescent, out of the corral. But we can always brush away the ruddy gnats and make banana bread.


  1. Dan Hennessy says:

    Navaho White seems to be popular . Karenia—- i think I’ll use that . I have just the character who could wear it well . Brevis , though , a bit too close to Bevis ( and Butthead ). We have to watch those word associations .

    1. Joe Linker says:

      That’s ok because I made a mistake: Karenia Brevis is responsible for Gulf Coast red tides. But I suppose you could transplant her to So Cal. I also think we might exercise some control over word associations. Otherwise their probably all reducible to cartoons. Well, just so. I guess. What was the name of that TV show, three characters sit in the front row of a theatre watching old b&w B films, sic-fi and such, and commenting usually absurdly about the films. We only see them from the back. I don’t think anyone else is in the theatre. Not sure I ever watched a complete episode. Maybe it wasn’t a TV show, but a movie channel. Maybe word associations are just a form of drift, like when you go in at 45th and come out at 39th.

      1. groki says:

        TV show: Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K to us fans)–plus one movie.
        The show trafficked in wildly inventive, gently sarcastic (and yes, often absurd) referential humor, bouncing off the film in many directions–from its images and sounds to its actors and creators, sometimes even its production details or marketing campaign–into the pop environment of its time (nineties mainly) and before, making teasing fun of all and sundry. Like glints from a 3D kaleidoscope, say.
        Many writers contributed to each episode, and the combined pool of their referents was quite broad. If you got a lot of the obscure ones, you felt pretty clever–but few people could claim to get them all. (Can you exhaust all the connotations of a word? :) Much of it was silly clowning, and could get juvenile–but many oxen were also, if not gored exactly, then at least poked.
        For fans, the show was both hilarious and deeply satisfying. Quite a bit of my internal comedy Bartlett’s consists of MST3K quotes.
        Most episodes from the decade-plus run of the show are on Youtube. A taste, if your interested: “Mr. B Natural,” a 1950s short film (a Conn trumpet promotion, probably made for schools) that gets the MST3K treatment.
        Thanks, btw. I enjoy your poetry, prose, and the comments on the blog.

        1. Joe Linker says:

          Wow, great reply! That’s the show! And here is “Mr. B Natural.” Is there a Mr. B Flat? MST3K, and I was only on the edge. I had no idea it ran for that long. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

  2. Dan Hennessy says:

    Bananas come in bunches ; words don’t . I read read and rose . I joyed this piece , Professor . What if The Crimson Tide became the Red Tide ? You might have mentioned J. Joyce’s use of the color brown in The Dead ; but you didn’t . Why , then , do I mention that possibility when there are an endless bunch of possibilities ? Could it be that , among your well-worded revelations , added too might be that words evoke other words , in among or during that stampede ?

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Karenia Brevis – would make a good name for a character in a Southern California setting. Thanks for that Joyce tip, although the next time I read The Dead I’ll likely have those brown spots swirling in my eyes. But I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head (or circularly?) with that word association idea, words calling up other words, and I guess brown is friends with red. Not to get too carried away, but maybe some words are complimentary to others in the same way colors are. But the last time I was in a paint store, looking at all those little cards with the various shades of color, all with fanciful names that rarely seemed to match the color (“Dead Brown”; “Dusty Stampede”; “Red Joy”), I thought, good grief, just give me a red, a yellow, and a blue, and I’ll do the rest.

  3. bristlehound says:

    This was fantastic to savour. Such pleasure can be gained from playing with words and their meaning.
    I find when reading, that should there be a ‘Crimson’ used in place of a ‘Red’ the text softens and sparkles, taking away the rudimentary message and replacing it with a mind switch.
    Words are just so wonderful. Many a time I have been writing something, be it a comment or poem, and it is as if a gap appears in the text. Always there exists a simple word that makes for easy translation, but a special word is needed to help the phrase soar. It is at this time strange words come that may have not been utilised before in any of my writing. They are foreign to me and I need to seek their meaning out, but for some reason they are in a crazy little bank that has many deposits.
    I have been hitting the dictionary after reading your blog. Your word-porn always gets me excited( no intentional meaning) and some of those words you used, I have never seen before. The great thing is you could have used simple language and carried your message that way, but the fizz was like drinking a soda and having it all prickly green and yellow, tickle the inside of the nose.
    Really enjoyed this Joe and thanks.B

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hey, B, “mind switch” – good title for a sic-fi story. Some critics caution against storming readers with a polysyllabic blizzard, favoring ordinary words, citing writers like Hemingway who get the job done in a kind of minimalist way, but Hemingway’s style is not as easy as it might sound. In any case, I say, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” if that’s what’s called for. But then again, as Mary says, you can also say it backwards, but she thinks that’s a bit too much, to which Bert agrees. A good comparison of styles, of word choice, is Hemingway against Faulkner, the former quick and short jabs, the latter the long stretch. But we might use the dictionary for ordinary words too sometimes, to remind ourselves of where they came from. Not to get all pedantic about it, just to know what’s in the compost.

  4. I just read this while eating banana bread. Not kidding. And I’m glad I did–read it, I mean. The banana bread reference was just a kind of bonus at the end.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hi, Jeff. Thanks for reading and comment. Banana bread with chocolate chips a good recipe!

  5. Stimulating thoughts. I like anything with a tinge of red, including Ruddy Rubescent Red. Never liked banana bread :)

    I did still photography for the not so well know Wim Wenders film ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ We filmed in Galicia, Spain.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      I’ve seen a few Wenders films: The Buena Vista Social Club (Ry Cooder project); Wings of Desire; Paris, Texas. I just checked library for The Scarlet Letter but did not see it. Will check Movie Madness; local store has obscure stuff. Is that photo from The Scarlet Letter on the Wiki entry yours? Re banana bread – but did you notice the red in bread?

      1. red bread – now there’s a thread …
        Galicia has a breath-taking coast, and the company was great. The film was a flop. Wenders was only 25.
        It was a time when I dropped in and out of hippiedom.

        1. Joe Linker says:

          The still camera might make an interesting narrator for a prose piece.

          1. Thinking :) it’s what writers do, narrating in a kind of stop motion process, alternating rhythms using smooth links or abrupt shifts of scene.
            Then there’s the eye behind the eye … behind the camera.

          2. Joe Linker says:

            Framing. How much light to reveal. Shuttering. How much darkness to avoid.

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