Q From Bill Fairweather, Detroit: Why do people talk about waving a red rag at a bull when they mean somebody is deliberately angering another? Why a red rag, and why a bull?
A The idiom red rag to a bull has been known in the English-speaking world since the nineteenth century. It can mean either an incitement or provocation or something that causes great annoyance or anger. The alternative red flag to a bull was recorded in its early days and is still in use.
Red rags have had a long history. The first meaning, known from about 1600 and which has lasted almost down to the present day, was of the tongue. To wag the red rag was to talk incessantly. This is a later example:
Shut your potatoe trap, and give your red rag a holiday.
A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose, 1785. It’s a little late to reassure former vice-president Dan Quayle that potato was indeed at one time often spelled potatoe, which explains why potato has the non-standard plural potatoes.
Literal red rags have many times been suggested as provocations for wild animals. A writer in 1720 stated that turkeys and pheasants would fly in anger at one. Others have mentioned snakes: in March 1809 the Times opined that “Truth to a lawyer was like a red rag to a viper — it extracted his venom.” In a similar vein, Sir Richard Burton noted in The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night in 1885 that snake-jugglers removed the poison fangs of snakes by provoking them to strike at a red rag. A book on wildfowling a decade later mentioned a small stand with a mirror and a red rag fastened to it for ensnaring larks. An Australian newspaper many decades ago said that even sheep are enraged by a red rag. An after-dinner toast of the nineteenth century mentions one further animal and adds another sense, the red coats of soldiers: “May our fair [ladies] never so nearly resemble our geese as to be attracted by a red rag.”
The usual explanation of the origin of red rag to a bull connects it with bullfighting. The muleta, the small cape Spanish matadors flourish in the final stages of the bout, has been coloured red ever since Francisco Romero from Andalusia introduced it around 1726. We now know that bulls are colour blind and that it’s the movement of the cape that attracts their attention. Other animals also have poor colour vision and this disposes of the story that the colour reminds them of blood, which discomforts them so much they charge at it.
People were making a direct connection between red rags and bulls from early in the nineteenth century:
The Bulls of Bashan are all roaring against him, and will toss and tear him to pieces like a red rag.
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Sep. 1822. The reference to Bashan is Biblical, to Psalm 22.
By the middle of the century, we find the expression taking on its modern form:
You say you don’t see much in it all — nothing but a struggling mass of boys, and a leather ball which seems to excite them all to great fury, as a red rag does a bull.
Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes, 1857.
It’s no more than coincidence that the earliest known usages of red rag in connection with hunting animals appear shortly before the muleta arrived in Spanish bullfighting. It’s most likely that red, traditionally the colour of fury, was the obvious choice for a thing designed to madden an animal and that the muleta’s colour was chosen for that reason. English speakers created the idiom red rag to a bull as an evocative extension of the idea once bullfighting had become well enough known.