In the pink

Close, but no bugle.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of “in the pink”? My father, born an Englishman, claims that the color of the jackets of those who hunt fox on horseback with their hounds (never “dogs,” if you please) is called “pink,” not “red,” in the hunting jargon, and supposes that to be “in the pink” is to be in fine hunting form. One is inclined not to doubt one’s own father of course. But it does seem sensible to “trust, but verify” in such matters. — Leslie R. Weatherhead.

Yes it does. Parents and other trusted figures do sometimes unwittingly pass along erroneous information. A high percentage of the questions I answer, in fact, come from people who have been told, at an early age, a colorful story about the origin of a word or phrase by their parents, grandparents or other presumably sober people, only to begin to doubt it many years later.

As you can probably tell from the tilt of that paragraph, the story your father offered to explain “in the pink” is not, in fact, completely true. It is true that the bright scarlet of the jackets traditionally worn by fox-hunters is called “hunting pink,” as are the coats themselves (“She loved to see him thus, superb in his pink, on his great black horse,” 1936). But there is no evidence that the phrase “in the pink” arose in the sport (around which I am sorely tempted to put quotation marks) of fox-hunting. “In the pink,” meaning “in fine shape, at the peak of condition and health,” actually follows quite logically from the evolution of the word “pink” itself.

Although we think of “pink” today as a color most often described as a pale red, sometimes with a slight purple tinge, the use of “pink” as the name of that color is relatively recent, first appearing in the mid-17th century and only becoming widespread in the 1800s. “Pink” prior to that was simply the popular name for flowers of the genus Dianthus, small blossoms with notched petals, often with dark stripes on a bright pink background. “Pinks” were enormously popular flowers from the 16th century onward. The name “pink” is a bit of a mystery, but probably comes from the “pinked” (notched) petals, “to pink” being an old verb of uncertain origin meaning “to cut, notch or pierce” (found today only in the “pinking shears” used in sewing).

The “Pink” flower was so popular in 16th century Europe that “pink” soon took on the broader meaning of “something excellent; the peak of perfection,” much as we might call a high-end coffee maker “the Rolls Royce of cappuccino machines.” Shakespeare was, as far as we know, the first to use it in print in this sense, in his 1597 play “Romeo & Juliet” (“Why, I am the very pinke of curtesie”). By the early 18th century “pink” was being used to mean “the most perfect condition or degree of something; the highest or most desirable state” (Oxford English Dictionary), and by the early 20th century “in the pink” meant “in perfect condition” and specifically “in perfect health” (“‘I am in excellent health, I thank you. And you?’ ‘In the pink. Just been over to America,’” P.G. Wodehouse, Inimitable Jeeves, 1923). So “in the pink” evolved quite seamlessly from a small, colorful flower, and no foxes were harmed in the process.

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