Why Are We Green With Envy?

(Last Updated On: March 21, 2023)

Lots of colors are associated with emotions, you’re probably pretty familiar with red and anger or blue and sadness. You’ve also probably heard an envious person being described as quite green. In the spirit of springtime and greenness, let’s look at being green and envious. Why are we green with envy?

Green and Illness

The color green, in a literary sense, has been associated with illness for a long time. The ancient Greeks allegedly described that pale complexion we get when we’re sick as green. By the way, we don’t really turn green, but that’s neither here nor there. 

Further Reading: Why Do We Turn Green When We Get Sick?

You might see people associate the “green and envy” thing with Shakespeare (we’ll get to it), but that’s not the earliest reference to green jealousy we could find. The earliest instance seems to go back to translations of Greek poems. Specifically, the creatively named “Sappho 31.” It’s creative because the gal who wrote it was named Sappho, and the poem describes her love for another woman. There’s a lot of literary discourse on Sappho’s work, and dating as far back as the 18th century “Sappho 31” has been described as a powerful poem about jealousy. This is an interpretation that has been contested, and the jealousy interpretation largely downplays the love the poem’s speaker has. 

Which interpretation is correct isn’t really relevant to this discussion right now, the point is that at some point people thought “Sappho 31” was Sappho writing about her feelings of jealousy. 

“Sappho 31” was written in Greek, and with so many different interpretations it has gone through the ringer of translations. The earliest translations are derived from some dude named Catullus revisiting the poem and readapting it. At some point here, Sappho was painted with a “green taint of jealousy.” 

But also, Shakespeare

Many argue the popularization of “green with envy” in the English language is owed to Shakespeare. Antony and Cleopatra (1607) makes reference to a “green sickness,” and references to a green-eyed monster appear a handful of times in Othello (1603). In all instances, Shakespeare is making reference to envy. 

If you didn’t go read either play for proof, that’s fine, because here’s one of the lines from Othello.

“Beware, my lord, of jealousy! it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Envy is pretty green, but see if you know other green things here.

About the Author:

+ posts

Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.