Not being British, I was fascinated a while back to learn that green ink is considered the medium of the lunatic fringe in the UK.
That little bit of lore became even more interesting recently when I heard that it is a long and continuing tradition for the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service to sign all documents in green ink.
The oddness of the idea that green ink bears so much meaning, and the ironic connection between the psychologically challenged and the professionally paranoid bore more investigation. How exactly did the colour green come to have such negative significance to the British?
No one seems to be able to say for sure which came first, but it appears that the tradition of the SIS – also known as MI6 – using green ink was established before the colour became associated with nutty behaviour.
In 1909, Mansfield Cummings became the first head of MI6 and fell into the habit of signing all of his documents with the letter “C,” always written in green ink. There is some speculation that this was a carryover from his days in the armed services, where senior officers supposedly used green ink.
For whatever reason, it became a tradition for the UK’s chief spy both to use green ink and to sign only as “C.” The green ink practice continues to this day, and is briefly discussed in the BBC radio programme “MI6 – A Century in the Shadows.”
Meanwhile, journalists in the UK frequently refer to the crazy letters they receive from readers as coming from the “green ink brigade.” The Guardian even goes so far as to instruct readers to avoid using green ink if they write letters to the editor.
The general consensus seems to be that the term comes from the fact that many of the nuttier letters that journalists receive are written in bright colours, or with words underlined heavily with bright inks.
As one Guardian writer put it several years ago, “Few who have worked in newspaper offices open letters addressed in green ink without trepidation, knowing the contents are likely to be some diatribe in favour of site value rating, or against fluoridation, or perhaps about bimetallism, if people still care about that.”
Michael Quinion, who runs the World Wide Words site, tried to dig into the history of the green ink designation. While he didn’t discover any definitive origin for the term as applied to eccentrics, he did turn up several interesting early uses.
The first, he said, came from the 1953 satire by Kingsley Amis called “Lucky Jim.” In it, the main character receives a dubious letter “ill-written in green ink.” Then, Carl Sagan also mentioned green ink 20 years later in his book, “The Cosmic Connection.
According to Quinion, Sagan described a letter in this way:
“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.”
Quinion also documents several instances in the ’80s and ’90s of British newspapers – including the Independent and the News Statesman – using the term to describe actions or correspondence that seemed less-than-sane. He offered this note from a 1985 article in the Guardian:
“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.”
How it all got started it still a mystery. However, it’s not uncommon for paranoids in the US to have all sorts of crazy fantasies involving the CIA or aliens, or maybe both working together. Given that, you have to wonder if the knowledge that the chief of MI6 uses green ink hasn’t fuelled at least a few lunatics’ imaginations, to the point that they, too, began writing in green ink as a way to give themselves more authority.
Whatever the origin, it appears that cranks now are moving on from green ink to angry anonymous comments left online, leading Victoria Coren, writing in The Observer, to lament, “Why does nobody use the post any more? Facebook threats, abusive calls: I miss the old-fashioned hate mail of yesteryear. I haven’t seen green ink for ages.”
It’s even showing up in British schools, as teachers move away from using red ink to mark incorrect papers. Former headmaster and Telegraph contributor Peter Dix, for one, is not a fan of the practice of using green ink in schools.
“The green ink is a worthy but unnecessary attempt by an older generation of teachers to get away from the negative and sometimes sarcastic marking they suffered in school, which of course was always done in red. Today’s children know nothing of this; they are just as likely to associate green with frogs and sprouts, and red with Father Christmas and tomato sauce.”
Still, the colour of crazies or not, green ink can be a lot of fun, as the delightful Diane at Pocket Blonde reminded us just yesterday with her discovery of a new Uniball Signo DX with emerald green ink.
And who doesn’t get bored sometimes with plain old blue or black?
But you tell me, now, readers – what do you know about the green ink brigade, and does the lore keep you from using green in your correspondence?