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Green-ink letter

Q From Anna Beria, University of Bath, UK: Although the meaning is quite clear to us and examples of use are readily available on the Web, so far we have not been able to locate the expression in any dictionary, let alone discover how it came about! Why green ink letter?

A I know immediately what you mean by a green-ink letter, or one written by a member of the green-ink brigade. Since they are terms largely restricted to Britain (though I have come across a couple of isolated references in American publications) some background would seem to be a good idea.

The term refers to a particular kind of letter writer, who claims that he is the victim of some injustice, or who composes long and vehement complaints against a person or an organisation, or who believes that a numerical calculation based on the name of the Prime Minister shows he’s an agent of the devil, or who is sure that invisible rays are being beamed into his house by his next-door neighbour to cause him injury, or who puts forward a thesis which, if adopted, will lead inevitably to world peace.

In 1998, the newly appointed Readers’ Editor of the Guardian, Ian Mayes, wrote: “Even before I began I had numerous warnings from colleagues to ‘beware of the green-ink brigade’, conjuring the spectre of obsessive correspondents who would write at great length and persistently, typically covering their copious sheets in longhand scrawled in green ink”.

In 1999, this appeared in the Independent newspaper: “All of which might be dismissed as a bad joke — a green-ink letter written by a malicious eccentric — were it an isolated case”; the New Statesman of January 1995 had: “So is Busby a paid-up member of the green-ink brigade or does he actually have a point? And is his phone really tapped?”

The earliest example I know of (many thanks to Fred Shapiro of Yale Law School for his help in finding it; he would like me to mention that he’s Editor of the Yale Book of Quotations) is dated 8 March 1985 and is once again from the Guardian: “Our elected legislature was taken over lock, stock and barrel by the green ink brigade”. In this case MPs weren’t actually writing letters, but debating fluoridation in the House of Commons in a way that the article’s writer, Ian Aitkin, felt was unbalanced. He thought it necessary to add this note to his comment:

“The expression is the more-or-less affectionate description given by journalists and politicians to the people who write them eccentric letters, often in block capitals and frequently underlined in multicoloured inks. For some reason I have never heard satisfactorily explained, the most obsessive of these correspondents seem to prefer green”.

In recent examples, the key characteristic is the eccentricity or disturbed reasoning of the individuals, not their actual use of green ink. Or indeed their writing of letters — as Ian Aitken’s piece demonstrates, the term had even by then become figurative.

I’m sure that the term arose in journalism, though — like you — I can find no good information about exactly when. I’ve asked several senior journalists of my acquaintance about it. They all know the expressions. Some claim to remember receiving letters of the type in their younger days, while others deny literal green-ink letters ever existed. But they all think the phrases were coined relatively recently to reflect journalistic experience or folklore.

There are hints of a much older association of eccentricity with green ink, however. Subscriber Anelie Walsh e-mailed from Australia following the first appearance of this piece to mention that it turns up in Carl Sagan’s book The Cosmic Connection (1973):

“There came in the post an eighty-five-page handwritten letter, written in green ball-point ink, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa. He had read a report in a local newspaper that I had thought it possible that life exists on other planets; he wished to reassure me that I was entirely correct in this supposition, as he knew from his own personal knowledge”.

An earlier reference, less direct, is from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1953), mentioned by several subscribers, among them Jane Halsey. The hero gets letters from a person purporting to be an editor of a learned journal, “ill-written in green ink”. The implication seems to be that the green ink is a sign of some abnormality (the writer turns out to be an academic thief) but whether Amis invented it, or was drawing on an existing folk belief about letters written in green ink is impossible to say.

It can hardly refer to the emotion mentioned in an article that appeared in several US newspapers in 1970 (here from the Modesto Bee): “If a girl writes you a letter in green ink, young fellow, do not treat it lightly. It is supposed to convey eternal love.”

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Page created 05 Apr 2003