Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week

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Word of the Week

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People say that the color that gives us our Word of the Week, green, is the easiest of all upon the eyes. Red appears bold and brash — a little of it goes a long way! Think of the cardinal, the “redbird,” that cheerful and most striking of American finches, perched atop a snow-covered branch of holly, with the red berries echoing his plumage. Yellow and gold don’t appear to vibrate as much as red does, but they still dazzle, which is why, I suppose, American cabs are yellow, so you won’t miss them. The darker colors won’t make you blink or squint, but you might have to narrow your eyes to tell one patch of brown that’s a tree from another patch of brown that’s the earth. But a field of green spreading out before you seems to invite you, to say, “Come here and breathe easy,” as when a little boy will lie on his back in the grass when it’s a sunny day, and see only blue above him and green all around him, and daydream, or think of blessed nothing.

Green is the first color mentioned in Genesis, when God gives to all the creatures on earth the “green herb” for food, and sure enough, what we call chlorophyll (literally, green-leaf) in the several forms we’ve identified and probably in others we haven’t uses the energy of sunlight to produce sugars and proteins, giving off the oxygen that we need to breathe, and making the food that all living things, in one way or another, subsist on. If you ever looked at Egypt from high above in an airplane, it would look like a ribbon of green in a vast expanse of light brown, and maybe here and there you would see a green spot, too, an oasis where underground waters manage to spring up amid the rocks and let the palm trees grow. And if you were far north in the Yukon in their brief and glorious summer, you might see the deep green willows that grow only a few inches tall, spreading out over miles and miles, and cheering the birds that like their seeds. Hard to survive in such a climate? Yes, sure, hard for us, but not for those willows, which can live for a thousand years and more.

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I like to see green in paintings and mosaics: the green herbs in the enclosed garden, in Fra Angelico’s painting of the Annunciation; the warm greens and blues of the background in the ceiling over the presbytery in San Vitale, in Ravenna, and, upon the pillars beneath, a rich green that highlights the four prophets of the Messiah to come; and the tall and mighty trees of the well-known Way to Emmaus, by the Swiss painter, Robert Zünd — which I saw a copy of, on the wall of the living room in my Aunt Marie’s house, hundreds and hundreds of times when I was a kid, and I never tired of looking at it.

“Gang nach Emmaus,” Robert Zünd. Public Domain.

Do we tire of looking at the green? Shakespeare’s Falstaff, when he lay dying, babbled “of green fields,” and Dante says that nobody is sure to be damned so long as there is any hope still green. When his beloved Beatrice finally appears to him at the top of the mountain of Purgatory, she is robed in green, like the green of the earthly paradise roundabout him. Rightly so, for unless you’re “green with envy” or you are “green around the gills,” green is the color of life and youth. The word itself is related to our verb grow, and that’s no surprise, because grass and leaves are things we can watch growing from day to day. And a thing that is evergreen gives us confidence: no matter how cold the world may be, no matter how ancient it may be in its hard and bitter ways, the green can never be burnt away entirely. So are we promised, and so should we believe. May you all see that season to come, when the green spring and the rich harvest are one, and fruit is ripe even while the branches are budding forth in new leaves. Why, it might even make this Italian cheer for the Irish, in that land where Italy is as green as Ireland and Ireland as warm as Italy!

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is a reader-supported online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Word of the Week
Stop by on Mondays to hear Tony discuss the word of the week, with etymologies, ad libs .. and pizzazz.
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