Paint the town red
Posted: 17 January 2018 05:15 AM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  370
Joined  2007-02-24

I thought that “red” in this usage would be clear, but it is not. From

US slang. Earliest known use 1884. Various theories include the red from bonfires, the heat from over-stoked paddle-wheel boilers, and town demarcation lines in the Wild West. A British claim attributing it to the actions of the Third Marquess of Waterford predates the first known use by decades.
English Wiktionary. Available under CC-BY-SA license.

What exactly is a “town demarcation line in the Wild West”? I don’t recall ever seeing any red lines in western movies. And just how would that explain the usage?

Posted: 17 January 2018 05:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Total Posts:  6610
Joined  2007-01-03

Green’s Dictionary of Slang has this to say about the phrase’s origin:

? the excesses of the Marquis of Waterford and a bunch of aristocratic vandals who on the night of 5–6 April 1837 literally painted Waterford red, daubing the buildings with paint; given the US origin, poss. linked to the image of turning an entire town into a ‘red light district’

(There’s an error here in that the marquis did not paint Waterford (which is in Ireland) red, but rather the town of Melton Mowbray, near Leicester, England. See the Wikipedia entry for an account.)

Green’s also has an antedating:

1865 [US] letter q. in Wiley Life of Johnny Reb (1943) 66: We [...] visit the Theaters may be get on a big Whope & Paint the thing red.

But the antedating works against the red-light district idea. That term isn’t attested until 1880. That’s not a firm debunking, as the term and certainly the actual use of red lights pre-date 1880, but it does militate against the hypothesis.

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