“It turned Brer Merlin green with envy and spite, which was a great satisfaction to me.” — A Connecticut Yankee by Mark Twain
‘Green with envy’ was a colorful term used long before Mark Twain wrote these words about jealousy in the late-1800s. Today, the saying means that one is envious or covetous of someone or something.
If one is “bitten by the green-eyed monster,” it’s thought they are consumed with jealousy. With envy being one of the deadly sins, there’s been a lot written about it since the beginning of time.
Color Me ‘Green with Envy’
If you go back a few hundred years to the 16th and 17th centuries, great authors such as Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote of characters who were green with envy.
Shakespeare uses green to describe jealousy at least three times in his works. In Othello, Iago refers to the ‘green-eyed monster.’ In Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare wrote of the ‘green sickness,’ meaning jealousy. And in Merchant of Venice, he used the term ‘green-eyed jealousy.’
Early Green Usage
Long before Shakespeare connected green with jealousy, the color was more commonly used to describe illness. Sources such as Who Put the Butter in Butterfly by David Feldman claim the early Greeks interchanged “green” and “pale” to mean sickly. The Greeks thought that when you were ill or jealous, the body produced too much bile, giving the skin a green tint.
And while many sources are content to let Shakespeare take credit for inventing the idea of a person turning green with envy, a Greek poet beat him to the punch more than 2,000 years earlier. Sappho wrote of a forlorn lover being green in one of her works dating back to the seventh century B.C.E.
So how does “green with envy” turn into the ‘green-eyed monster’? Several sources suggest that Shakespeare, who is credited with creating this phrase, was comparing a jealous man to a green-eyed cat that toys with its prey before killing it:
“O! Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” — Othello