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Yellow in spectrum: a jaundiced etymology.

Yellow is a color, for all its dramatic unalterability, with a thousand meanings. Wallace Stevens calls yellow the "first color," with an attendant suggestion of decay and dissolution ("The grass is yellow and thin"), but more often uses it affirmatively, linked with the sun: "The sun, in clownish yellow." It is the color of cowardice, third prize, the caution flag in auto racing, adipose tissue, scones and honey, the nimbus of saints, school buses, urine, New Mexico license plates, illness, highway signs, Pennzoil, and the oddly lit hair of all Australian aborigines before adulthood. Easter is yellow. So is spring and much of the beauty of autumn. It is the color in cathodes and transmission emitters in electrical chassis wiring. It represents wisdom, light, illumination, intuition, power and glory, the hue of confessors, divinity, magnanimity, ripening grain, and the gates of heaven. In Egypt it is the color of happiness and prosperity.

Yellow has many tints and hues. Banan is the proper term for the yellow color of a ripe banana, which was originally Asian, migrating with the Spanish conquistadores to America in 1516. (Yellow taxicabs and yellow-painted beach wagons that were once used by resorts to meet guests at train stations were called "banana wagons.") There is tangerine yellow, a sort of honeysuckle. Golden ironweed. Celandine, a greenish yellow. Brass is dull yellow; canaries, bright. Then there is Cadillac gold. (Donald Trump hated the original flat-yellow handrails at Trump Plaza. "See that gold Cadillac down the street?" he told his interior designer. "That's the color I want those handrails. Gold. Cadillac gold. Not yellow like a daisy.") A flavescent touch can be found in the green of early spring buds. Saffron has an orange cast, mustard a yellowish brown, like turmeric.

And what of the pale golden light filtering into the lovely Norman transepts through the high-fretted windows in the elegant cathedrals of France and England? Light in its glory is golden in its grace. A yellow baseball was actually used once when Chicago played Brooklyn in 1939. And yellow tennis balls are now officially used at Wimbledon. The famous helmet of Harold "Red" Grange, number 77, was yellow-brown. Amelia Earhart's favorite car, which she called the "Yellow Peril," was a 1922 Kissel Kar with big nickel headlamps and a long yellow body with black fenders. (A hybrid yellow rose was also named for the lovely aviatrix.) London buses, incidentally, were in the nineteenth century not red, as they are now, but yellow. It is the color of the Vaisya, or third mercantile caste, in India. It is also the favorite color in the quillwork designs on moccasins among the American Plains Indians and the color on the jersey of the triumphant cyclist in the Tour de France.

London fog is correctly described in T S. Eliot's poetry as yellow, which is how it appears in that city by the Thames, for hazes are often yellow, as are night mists, miasmas, noxious effluvia, and eerie contagions once thought to emanate from putrescent matter, swamps, etc., and to float in the air. During the arc-light era of long ago, street lanterns equipped with Welsbach burners, flickering romantically, diffused a mild yellow glow within a restricted radius. One need only look at Louis Anquetin's Avenue de Clichy, in which, drawing on a childhood memory, he suffused his view of a Paris street in a deep luminous blue, relieved by the yellow flare of gas lamps on the charcutier's awning.

Our sun is yellow. A nuclear furnace, the dominant body in our solar system in both mass and size, the sun produces its energy by converting atoms of hydrogen into atoms of helium. Energy is generated in a central inner core hotter than hell itself and then carried by radiation to a subsurface zone, where it produces convective motions, the gases of the corona being so hot, the swirls of particles streaming outward so powerful, that it has no clearly defined outer boundary and can actually disturb the magnetic fields of the earth. The sun is classified as a yellow-dwarf star, midway between the largest and the smallest stars and between the hottest blue-whites and the coolest red stars. In astrological studies, in the zodiac, yellow is the color of the Sun ruling Leo. The Temple of Nebuchadnezzar II is devoted to the sun. Nietzsche found clean yellow sunshine in Georges Bizet's music. "The sun is God," whispered painter J.M.W Turner a few weeks before he died, with the rising rays of it on his face.

Yellow is the Chinese color for royalty. During the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912) only the emperor could wear yellow; it was the special color with which he worshiped the sky. With the Chinese, gold on yellow indicates special happiness, whereas yellow on black signifies an old man's death. In Chinese opera, an actor's face painted yellow means piety. "Yellowfish" was for a long time a vile racial term for illegal Chinese immigrants on the Pacific coast of the United States. Yellow tubes are often used in China in burial ceremonies to pay homage to the earth. At celebrations held at temples of Confucius, say on his birthday, in autumn, young people, playing flutes and crowned with pheasant feathers, always wear yellow. Chinese rice wine is yellow. A clouded, dense wine with a syruplike consistency reminiscent of sherries, it is buried in earthenware vessels for several years. In ancient China, earthenware pottery, covered in pewter leaf on yellow glaze, was often filled with food, which was supposed to nourish those who left for the "yellow fountains"--that is, the next world.

The Yellow River (Huang Ho) in China gets its name from the color as the direct result of the natural movement of the water, which in turmoil causes layers of yellow mud to build up. This mud, called loess, is exceptionally fertile and 650 feet deep in places. The river is extremely turbid, transporting enormous quantities of loess, about two pounds per square foot, depositing it everywhere as alluvium. Ocean color yields clues of other things. Brown or yellow water almost always tells of a river mouth and nearby civilization. I remember my surprise on first seeing the Yellow Sea, which is indeed intensely yellow far out of sight of the estuaries of the Yangtze, the Huangpu, and the Huang Ho. And one can spot the effects of the muddy River Plate more than a thousand miles off Argentina. The normal look of Flanders and much of northeastern France, incidentally, where by November 1918 there were 2 million English casualties, to say nothing of those on the German side, was of a stinking mud that was predominantly an evil yellow.

As to fashion, Nero Wolfe, the corpulent, 278-pound detective created by Rex Stout, declared that his favorite color was yellow. Yet it's a strangely acute color. Not many people look very good wearing it. But who can forget Judy Garland in her sunburst-yellow dress singing "You Stole My Heart Away" in the movie Till the Clouds Roll By? Blondes and redheads have trouble with yellow. Bette Davis, when she was a young Warner Bros. star, was unique for wearing yellow horn-rimmed glasses. In education, we distinguish the tint in doctoral hoods: citrol (social work), golden yellow (science), and lemon (library science). Yellow ribbons (worn by sweethearts, according to John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) became in America from the 1980s on, thanks to a popular song sung by Tony Orlando and Dawn, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree," a symbol, whether wrapped around trees or wherever, of remembrance, loyalty, and love--and, during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, of fanatical jingoism in America, where virtually every object in sight sprouted yellow bows, although it was our army that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Pencils, of course, are yellow. It is virtually the sign of pencilness. Even Scripto's 1980s throwaway plastic pencil--a fake--was yellow! The famous Koh-I-Noor, "the original yellow pencil," which was exhibited for the first time at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893--and still is sold today--was painted golden yellow. (Koh-I-Noors made in 1938 in a factory in Bloomsbury, New Jersey, were given fourteen coats of golden-yellow lacquer, the ends of the pencils were sprayed with gold paint, and all lettering was applied in 16-karat gold leaf.) Pencils most likely were first painted yellow to cover the imperfect wood used. Today, three out of four pencils made are painted yellow.

Why is blond such a coveted color in hair? It was highly desired during the Renaissance. Simonetta Vespucci, the breathtakingly beautiful model for Botticelli's Birth of Venus and his Primavera, was singled out for her honey-colored hair. Venetian ladies during the nineteenth century counterfeited their hair with dye. Is it the shine, the "flash," the fact that it's so instantly the cynosure of so many eyes? (Gentlemen prefer blondes, remember, but blondes prefer diamonds. And a very light straw color, by the way, is a raw diamond's commonest tint, though yellow diamonds--which draw their color from nitrogen--are considered inferior to the blue and white varieties.) And is that why blondes are thought to be dim-witted? Easy? Treated like whores in the Middle East? Or is it because truly lovely, iridescent, really natural blondes, the paradigm, are comparatively so rare? What on earth, including cornflowers, butterflies, the rich deep gold on Norwegian bridal pins, or even pure Javanese sunshine was ever as gold as Veronica Lake's hair?

The earth is filled with the color. Yellow sapphires. Wulfenite, a lead molybdate, is yellow. Goethite, an iron hydroxide named after the German poet Goethe, who was a student and collector of minerals, is yellow. As is, of course, native sulfur, known to the ancients as brimstone. (When sulfur crystals are held close to the ear, they can be heard to crackle, on account of the warmth of your hand, because the outer layers expand away from the still-cool interior.) "In the Hall of Gems at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I once stood in front of a huge piece of sulfur so yellow," wrote poet Diane Ackerman, "I began to cry ... The intensity of the color affected my nervous system." In May 1937, during a southwest gale, yellow sand fell in the canton of Basel, Switzerland, so heavily that the countryside appeared swathed in a strange sulfuric fog. The sand was later proved to be from the Sahara Desert a thousand miles away, and it must have been picked up by a simoom to be blown over the Alps at above 12,000 feet. And then there's that other commodity, as the English poet Thomas Hood wrote, "Gold! gold! gold! gold!/bright and yellow, hard and cold." John Dryden referred to guineas as "yellow boys," and gold British coins known as sovereigns were commonly called "yellows" or "yellow mould."

Eros is often thought of in yellow terms. The Yellow Cat was a well-known brothel in the Strand in London. Yellow is often the color of debauchery, impure love, trashiness. The basic color scheme of the sulfurous film Last Tango in Paris is yellow. Yellow Silk is currently a popular erotic magazine. An aura of degeneracy has always been associated with the color, a mood of enervation, corruption, a strange sort of involuted unhealthy languor. The Yellow Book, a decadent publication published around the turn of the century, was yellow, to suggest a similarity to French novels. Somewhat presaging its unwholesome reputation, its prospectus said it would "have the courage of its modernness, and not tremble at the frown of Mrs. Grundy." The drug LSD was also called "yellow sunshine"; "yellow jackets" is slang for capsules of Nembutal, a barbiturate; and many people back in the Sixties associated the Beatles song "Yellow Submarine"--were lazy surreal opium dreams suggested?--with getting high.

Yellow is often taken as the color of protection and warning. It has a burning, highly visible, almost unoverlookable shine or sheen to it. It is, not surprisingly, one of the colors for quarantine, as well as, of course, the general warning color code on highways. A sterilized secondhand mattress always carries a yellow tag. Widows in Guatemala frequently paint their bodies yellow. Diseases in Malaysia are driven away in a yellow ship. In India, brides often wear tattered yellow garments six days before the wedding to drive away evil spirits. On roads as well as railroads, amber lights mean proceed with caution and at reduced speed. For surfers, it is the caution color for rip tides. Yellow indicates caution on the insides of heavy machinery. A solid yellow card in soccer is raised by a referee to indicate that a player has committed a flagrant foul and is being cautioned. Cars in the United States are prohibited from parking in yellow zones. Small collapsible dinghies, used for rescue, are called "yellow doughnuts." Yellow lettering on red means flammable liquid; yellow and purple indicate radiation hazards. And the trucks and equipment of many fire departments in the United States are now a slightly eerie gamboge.

It is surely for its high visibility that yellow is the color of rain slickers, legal pads, heavy machinery, the Yellow Pages, lines painted on highways, the original Post-it notes, tape measures, the caution flags in motor racing, racetracks, McDonald's golden arches, taxicabs, the round lights on construction sawhorses, the police ribbons used to mark off a crime scene, and, because it is better seen and presumably more easily followed, the long, winding Yellow Brick Road of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. There is always the alertness of bright efficiency to it. And what student, whether in college or high school, hasn't spent time in carrels Hi-Liting lines in books with yellow felt-tip pens?

Frequently, it is taken to be the color of cowardice, of excessive timidity, of pusillanimity. Malvolio, the weak, sour, and censorious underling of Twelfth Night, appears in cross-gartered yellow stockings. By a "yellowbelly" we mean a coward or a person with a "yellow streak up his back." (A "Yellow Belly," which is less widely known, is also a native of the fenlands of East Anglia and Lincolnshire, an allusion to the frogs caught there.) In the nineteenth century, Mexican soldiers almost always wore yellow uniforms, and some say this is the origin, the bigoted one, at least in North America, of the cowardly association with the color. "What's the matter, ya yella?" Ray "Mad Dog" Earle--Humphrey Bogart--defiantly shouts to the cops pursuing him up the rocky hills in the movie adventure High Sierra. Speaking of Bogart, Captain Queeg, whom he portrays in The Caine Mutiny, is pejoratively nicknamed "Old Yellow Stain" by the disgusted and eventually mutinous crew for the yellow dye-marker he had thrown to indicate retreat in a maneuver.

Many negative connotations adhere to yellow. It is the color of treachery, malevolence, often treason, deceit, and jealousy. A "yellow-dog contract" is slang for an employee's work contract that forbids membership in a union. To have a "yellow sheet" is to have a criminal record. Yellowbacks were cheap novels, of the sensational kind, so called because of the yellow board bindings so well known in railway bookstalls in the early 1890s. In comic books, yellow is the color that takes away the Green Lantern's power. It is the color of fading bruises, unpopular cats, chlorosis in plants, potato wart, old paper, forbidding skies, dead leaves, xanthoderma, purulent conjunctivitis, dental plaque, gimp lace, infection and pus ("Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye," sings John Lennon in "I Am the Walrus"), nicotine on fingers and teeth, and speed bumps. In the second stage of ringworm, small yellow specks develop, which then spread out circularly. To act yellowly--a legitimate adverb--is often to fail. "Yellow grease" is a low-quality refuse fat obtained from those parts of a hog not used in making lard but used in manufacturing. "Yellow admirals" are merely post-captains in the British Navy promoted to rear admiral on retirement but who never served in that rank.

In tenth-century France, the doors and abodes of criminals, felons, and traitors were painted yellow; in medieval Spain, yellow as part of the executioner's costume stood for the accused victim's treachery. And during the Inquisition in Spain, at an auto-dafe, victims were robed in yellow, to denote heresy and treason. (Judas in medieval pictures is almost always arrayed in yellow.) Yellow circles made of cord an inch thick had to be worn on the chests of Venetian Jews by an order of 1430. The city of Pisa, a century earlier, had required an O of red cloth, and Rome insisted male Jews wear red tabards and Jewish women red-and-yellow doublets. Red or yellow clothing continued to be required of "perfidious" Jews who lived in the Italian city-states throughout the Renaissance, prefiguring the yellow armbands marked with the Star of David imposed on Jews by Nazi law in the 1930s and '40s.

Dermatologically speaking, yellow skin is not a good sign. The infectious tropical disease known as yellow fever, transmitted by a mosquito, makes the skin become cold and take on an unhealthy yellow tint. Jaundice is a morbid condition characterized by yellowness of the skin and eyes and deep yellow color of the urine, due to the presence of bile pigments in the blood and

tissues. (Some odd jaundice cures? Yellow spiders rolled in butter in England; turnips, gold coins, saffron in Germany; gold beads in Russia.) Chronic hepatitis is dangerous, and signaled by a distinct xanthodermic effect. Hepatic necrosis, or acute yellow atrophy, which is accompanied by a rapid decrease in liver size and overt bleeding, is often fatal.

The color yellow in nature is complex in beauty and as various in its modality as the fierce yellow tiger, emblem of power, is different from the yellow bunting, emblem of grace, in the skies overhead. Elms, willows, ginkgoes, along with hickories, aspens, cottonwoods, bottlebrush buckeyes, turn yellow in the fall. Canola, a variety of rapeseed, has brilliant yellow flowers, and the cultivated fields of them in and around Dawson Creek, British Columbia, are positively breathtaking. As are the gorse and the wattle of Australia, with their inspiring clouds of yellow blooms. A Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum), which, according to legend, was used as a bed on which the Virgin Mary rested, gives a good yellow color, and, as a yellow dye, it has often been used in certain cultures to produce the golden color so sought after in hair.

Marigolds, dandelions, daffodils, jonquils, primroses, goldenrod, forsythia, sunflowers, and broom are all bursts of yellow. And what of the gay yellow calendula? The Chrysantha tulip? And other tulips--the Bouton d'Or? The Markgraaf, striped with scarlet? The flowers of melilot, often used to flavor beer--and also cheese--are bright yellow, like scorzonera, a perennial plant with a root not unlike a carrot, which is highly delectable when fried in butter. Yellow saxifrage, or gold dust, is quite lovely, as is yellow broom, a sprig of which was worn by Geoffrey of Anjou, conqueror of Normandy (1147), as he rode into battle. There is also the shrub benzoin, or gum benjamin, with its yellow flowers that grow in umbelliferous clusters. And buttercups. The prevailing idea, by the way, held for years, that cows feeding in a field of buttercups produce cream and butter of a yellow color is entirely erroneous. Cows, in point of fact, show great discrimination in avoiding buttercups, for if they should make a mistake and munch some, they suffer as a consequence, since buttercups hold a vile, acrid juice in their stems that bums and raises blisters, a fluid, curiously enough, sometimes used in folk medicine as a counterirritant in sciatica and rheumatic pains.

There is an abundance of lovely yellow vegetables (corn, butternut squashes, yellow onions, wax beans) as well as fruits (yellow pears, bananas, grapefruit, lemons, citrons, pineapples). Our tables shimmer and shine with vegetable oil, egg yolks, mustard, and butter. Pasta is yellow, as are yellow beans and most common cheeses. Cheeses that are bright yellow in color are usually made that way by means of the coloring substance annatto, which has been stirred into the curd. In olden times, this rich color was commonly supplied by the use of marigold or carrot juice. There are many different colors of cheeses, of course, as there are of beers. And beer, incidentally, in the 1840s was often referred to as "a pint of yell," an abbreviation given to it for its golden color. Galliano is yellow, like brandy and darker mescals and tequilas, with their rich, heady color.

Oh, the glory of yellow paint! Sunlight must almost always be painted with tints slightly prismatic, composed of red, yellow, and blue, that obviate coldness and realize aerial effects. We have the chromatically brilliant yellows, found, for example, in Matthew Smith's Fitzroy Street Nude, No. 2. Edouard Manet's Nude has a much lighter skin. Then there's the magic iridescence of Georges Braque's Landscape at La Ciotat, a painting that, for me at least, virtually defines summer.

I remember being amazed while visiting the Dahlem Museum in Berlin in 1966 and seeing for the first time the impasto of yellow oil paint, slathered on, seeming almost as thick as honey, built up on Rembrandt's Man with the Golden Helmet. Look at Pieter Brueghel's The Harvesters, one of the few Brueghels in the United States, which as a composition is almost all yellow. And Vermeer? It was, along with blue, his favorite color, metonymically bonded to ambiguities of light and exposure. It demystifies. It is an open and radiant color, almost always the singular color, energizing its wearer, of the jackets, doublets, and blouses of pretty girls in his canvases.

Vincent van Gogh knew many color tricks, especially with his kinetic yellows. A yellow article, for example, placed in a red light, will look red to us and green. This is because yellow can reflect both the red and the green light, and when both are reflected together it looks yellow; but if we place it in a violet light, it will also look black, because yellow cannot reflect anything but red and green--or yellow, which, of course, is a combination of the red and green light.

Van Gogh's paintings dripped with golden light. Consider the rich and buttery yellow ochers of his Cornfield with Cypresses (1889). And Roulin the Postman (1888). And what about the sunflowers? The yellows are chrome--he almost always used three tones of chrome yellow--and were once undoubtedly much cruder and brighter than their now subdued and harmonious gold. Vincent wrote to his brother, Theo, from Arles in 1890: "All the colors that the Impressionists have brought into fashion are unstable. So there is all the more reason to use them boldly ... time will tone them down only too well." And he was right, of course. The billiard table in his well-known Night Cafe was once a bright green, as he refers to it in one of his letters. It is now tan, with no trace of green whatsoever.

In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the protagonist, Charlie Marlow, a man of sunken cheeks described as having a "yellow complexion," looks at a map of the Belgian Congo, marked with all the colors of the rainbow. "There was a vast amount of red--good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However," reports Marlow portentously, "I wasn't going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there--fascinating--deadly--like a snake."

I was going into the yellow.

So few colors give the viewer such a feeling of ambivalence or leave in one such powerful, viscerally enforced connotations and contradictions. Desire and renunciation. Dreams and decadence. Gold here. Grief there. An intimate mirroring in its emblematic significance of glory in one instance and yet, in another, painful, disturbing estrangement. An opposing duality seems mysteriously constant. The yellow Brick Road. The Heart of Darkness. We go into the yellow, I suppose, each in our own way, with values attuned, no doubt, to whatever mode of empathy our particular vision aspires. Nevertheless, how enigmatic a color it seems, being so ready to oblige.
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Author:Theroux, Alexander
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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