Natalie Angier has a piece in the Science section of today’s New York Times: “How Do We See Red? Count the Ways.”
First it was the title (clever play on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet # 43) that caught my eye. Then, the illustration, which is by Serge Bloch, one of my favorite illustrators (who I also had the pleasure of working with for an issue of Writing). So I started reading and learned many interesting things about the power of red in biology and cultural history. (If you want a summary, you’re not going to get one. The article is worth reading, hence this second link!)
So, we all know that there are all these universal cultural references that hinge on red: the STOP sign, traffic signals, and red roses for LOVE, for example. But, this quote in particular caught my eye:
“Our visual system was shaped by colors already in use among many plants and animals, and red in particular stands out against the green backdrop of nature … If you want to make a point, you make it in red. … In the evolution of language, red is without exception the first color word to enter the vocabulary. ”
~ Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, a philosopher at LSE and the author of “Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness”
The above remark made me sit up and wonder whether if we were to trace the origins of red marginal comments made by legions of teachers, professors, and editors throughout various cultures and time periods, would it lead back to our primal connection with the color red? (I wish I had the time to research this
I’ve always been a non-fan of the use of red pen to mark up students papers and friends’ writing – I personally find it harsh, loud, jarring, and painful to read comments in red ink. But, if so many people do it, does that mean that they believe that it is the strongest way to make a point and get a reader’s attention -or has it been proven to be so?
I’ll admit that after having worked in a magazine setting for the past 3 years, I’ve also taken to using a red Sharpie now and then, not because I find it to be the most effective way, but because some people look for the red pen marks as signals of areas of proofs that need the most attention. Plus, when you use the ‘comment’ feature in MSWord, it automatically plunks in your comments in red. There’s no getting around it in the digital medium. Last week, when I taught a writing workshop, I also used it to teach revision on screen because that was the most striking color my software provided me with on my Tablet.
I’m not saying anything new here, really. I’m just wondering: If we had to choose another color to make a point in written feedback, what color would we choose? Would purple or green ever have a chance of becoming the new red, at least when it came to the tools of editing and marking?
Somewhat unrelated/related (depending on your perspective): Here’s the great cover Serge Bloch did for Writing last year!