Spring 2014

Colors / Crimson

Bled dry

Jude Stewart

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

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

Crimson lies, like a tired 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, great powers 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? What is hiding behind the threadbare crushed velvet of that crimson curtain?

Jean-Jacques Hauer, The Death of Marat, 13 July 1793, 1794. Courtesy musée Lambinet.

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 connotations—luxury, fineness, exaltedness—are now wrapped in irony: it 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-tasseled 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—all to harvest a measly forty-odd 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, the cochineal must nevertheless be gathered in eye-popping numbers to produce the dye: 70,000 for each pound. Global production topped two million pounds a year by the 1850s—whip out your abacus and tally that—before declining sharply with the invention of synthetic dyes in 1856. 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.

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