For Cabinet Magazine.

I. In which the author admits a peculiar anti-crimson bias, momentarily fulminates, then buttons herself up to plumb same

Crimson lies, like a spreading rug or a tired-out prostitute. It’s a much-rouged, well-furbelowed, heavily perfumed word. Its usage signals an author reaching for superlatives: throat-catching beauty, heart-stopping gore, mantles of power clashing in war, the reddening of downy-pale cheeks with embarrassment or sex. But too many authors have lazily pushed the “crimson” button, and the word has gotten tuckered out.

Used today, the word “crimson” should provoke skepticism. Why did the author pick this untrustworthy word? Why should he assume, pornographically, that readers will accept his buzzing dildo and respond obediently to it? What is hiding behind the threadbare crushed-velvet of that crimson curtain?

“Crimson” is one of my least favorite words. It reeks of the worst habits of writers, a word precision-crafted to do all the heavy lifting for you. To my modern ear its sound is still plush, but its meaning is obscene. And yet: you don’t find many words nowadays that are so hollowed-out, yet still actively in use. Its previous meaning – automatic luxury, fineness, exaltedness – is now wrapped in irony: a word that no longer expects to be met with wholesale belief. Its exhausted eyes, I’ll admit, are intriguing.

II. In which the author dons her crimson-tassled professorial cap and tackles etymology

In the era of cheap synthetic dyes, we forget that color-terms are rooted in earthy, expensive stuff. The word “crimson” stems from kermes, an umbrella term for several varieties of insects captured, dried and crushed to produce costly red dyes. One such bug, St. John’s blood, lives parasitically on scleranth plants in Poland. Each plant has to be uprooted, cleaned and stripped of bugs at harvest – all for a measly forty insects per rootstalk. Another color insect, the Armenian red scale, clambers obligingly up from underground but is easily confused with insects with no dyeing power.

Both insects, however, pale before the mighty Mexican cochineal. Benign parasites living off the prickly pear cactus, cochineals can be simply brushed off and dried to yield a dyestuff packing an unrivaled chromatic punch. (Female bugs release carminic acid, the coloring agent, to render themselves unpalatable to predators.) Simpler to harvest than other species, cochineal dyeing nevertheless requires eye-popping numbers of bugs: 70,000 for each pound of dye. Global cochineal production topped 2 million pounds a year by the 1850s, declining sharply thereafter. (Whip out your abacus and tally that.) Today real cochineal still stains many foods, drinks and cosmetics red. The lushly lipsticked mouth curving over a sexy red lollipop: both are likely painted with the distilled essence of insects.

To recap, then: “crimson” refers to a rich, insect-derived red edging towards purple. (Its brighter, more straightforwardly red cousin is scarlet.) It’s uncomfortably close to actual blood, both in hue and origin. Its production fueled brutal empires and stained its power-brokers’ clothes. It’s subterranean, craven, scuttling at its source. It wants badly to stink of opulence, and it does.

 

III. Pondering blood, valor and gore

“Crimson” describes bloodshed at two different removes. In elevated poetry or prose, the word safely brackets violence, either about to happen or happening now, for a valorous cause. For (classic) instance: “At ev’ry Step, before Achilles stood the crimson Surge,” wrote Homer in the Iliad (as rendered in Alexander Pope’s 1720 translation). “Crimson” draws a decorous curtain over ugly action. It averts the readers’ eyes from the gore-spattered battleground to the lofty horizon, stained pink with historical after-glow.

This makes “crimson” the ruddy, temporal foil of another color-word, “to burnish”: to seal a weapon against rust with dried blood, like a chef seasons his wok. Medieval ballads bristle with references to “brown blades” or – in the case of Beowulf – Weohstan’s victorious capture of Eotan’s sword and “bright-brown helmet”. “Crimson” is wet, gushing and actual, full of momentum; “burnished” is blood already soaked in, mellowed and dry.

Examined up close, fresh and gleaming blood is dismaying, morally ambivalent. In the slow literary arc of centuries, respectable “crimson” has waned in credibility, succumbing to a more phantasmagorical “crimson” describing bloodshed that’s senseless or downright evil. In Shakespeare’s spattergore-fest Titus Andronicus, Marcus’ niece cannot speak to him because, “Alas, a crimson river of warm blood, / Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind, / Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips, / Coming and going with thy honey breath.” In Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “The Thing in the coffin writhed… the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam.” Already crimson tastes lurid, a cheap show-stopper. Gawping saves readers from falling into blood’s volcanic maw.

These two valences of “crimson” remind me of the two words for red in Hungarian. Hungarians differentiate between living and inanimate reds, with an added wrinkle of sophistication: Piros describes simple, emotionally uncomplicated objects fit for children, while vörös, a darker shade of red, is reserved for reds with a deeper emotional resonance. Stop signs, clown’s noses, Slushees: piros. The Red Army, wine, blushing, and blood: vörös.

Crimson’s bloodiness also recalls for me the manifold symbolism of a red thread. The red chapter in my book, ROY G. BIV, recounts various things a red thread can mean: Goethe’s Rote Faden, a buried recurring theme in a story; stuffed-chameleon lucky charms worn by Moroccan soldiers; a ghastly neck-accessory in post-Terror France for ladies attending “victims’ balls”; a cuckolding test among European Roma; and the red string binding two lovers in Chinese and Japanese lore. Red threads, like rivulets of blood, bind but also formalize separation. Crimson tells, purges, protects.

 

IV. A brief consideration of crimson furniture

Describing the “closet in which Monsieur Louis of France recites his orisons” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo writes: “There was one folding arm-chair only, a very magnificent one, its frame painted with roses on a crimson ground, and the seat of crimson Cordova leather with a quantity of gold-headed nails.” In an 1840 essay called “The Philosophy of Furniture,” Edgar Allen Poe’s theory of decorating rests heavily on properly used crimson: “The colors of the curtains and their fringe – the tints of crimson and gold – appear everywhere in profusion, and determine the character of the room.”

All that crimson washes up on the shores of civilization as furniture. Its hue is bright enough to feel sprightly and inviting, but dimmed enough to communicate solidity, restraint, hearthiness. Good taste is gallingly ironic. The howling blood is stanched, tempered by distance.

 

V. Sunsets! Flowers! Maidens blushing! Max Factor! Bloody crimson everything!

Nowhere is “crimson” so thickly used as in descriptions of sunsets (or sunrises), flowers, and blushing. The word hits your eye so often, in so many overlappingly similar constructions (“crimson-dappled”, “crimson-stained”, never pale, always deep), it’s like a strong halogen bulb frantically switched on and off. The eye waters with ghostly after-shocks of crimson. When, desperate to explain this efflorescence of crimson, one looks up the word “cliché” in the dictionary – itself a cliché, a meta-cliché – one blinks slowly in surprise at Larousse’s first translation: “a photographic negative”, the original from which endless copies are struck.

“Crimson” has slashed at the jugular too many times, and each successive gush flows more weakly. We cannot squeeze more blood from this stone. It’s a word fit to retire, a curiosity cast off from a more innocent era. I blush – indeed, crimson! – at how its glorious run is endlessly petering out. Decency demands an end. I imagine the trophy marking its demise; mesmerizingly, it invents itself out of thin air. Behind shining glass, in a filigreed frame hung with a quantity of gold-headed nails, the word nestles in ultra-soft folds of an inevitable hue.