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The meaning and origin of the expression: Paint the town red

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Paint the town red

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Meaning

Engage in a riotous spree.

Origin

The allusion is to the kind of unruly behaviour that results in much blood being spilt. There are several suggestions as to the origin of the phrase. The one most often repeated, especially within the walls of the Melton Mowbray Tourist Office, is a tale dating from 1837. It is said that year is when the Marquis of Waterford and a group of friends ran riot in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray, painting the town's toll-bar and several buildings red.

waterfordThat event is well documented, and is certainly in the style of the Marquis, who was a notorious hooligan. To his friends he was Henry de la Poer Beresford; to the public he was known as 'the Mad Marquis'. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he is described as 'reprobate and landowner'. His misdeeds include fighting, stealing, being 'invited to leave' Oxford University, breaking windows, upsetting (literally) apple-carts, fighting duels and, last but not least, painting the heels of a parson's horse with aniseed and hunting him with bloodhounds. He was notorious enough to have been suspected by some of being 'Spring Heeled Jack', the strange, semi-mythical figure of English folklore.

Melton Mowbray is the origin of the well-known Melton Mowbray pork pie - which could hardly have originated anywhere else. The town's claim to be the source of 'painting the town red' is more doubtful. It is at least plausible that it came from there of course, but no more plausible than Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire being the source of 'cock and bull story' or Ashbourne, Derbyshire being the source of 'local derby' (which they aren't). Unfortunately, plausibility is as far as it goes. The phrase isn't recorded in print until fifty years after the nefarious Earl's night out. If that event really were the source of the phrase, why would anyone, or in this case everyone, wait fifty years before mentioning it?

paint the town redFurther evidence for the event, but against it being the phrase's origin, comes from a text below a picture of the revellers, dated 1837. The picture is labelled A Spree at Melton Mowbray and subtitled Or doing the Thing in a Sporting-like manner.

The date of the painting is certainly contemporary with the alleged incident and was reported on in the the New Sporting Magazine, in July 1837:

Mr. R. Ackermann, 191, Regent Street, has just published two more of the series of Sporting Anecdotes, illustrative of certain disgraceful proceedings termed "sprees," which took place at Melton Mowbray last season. In that intitled "Quick work without a Contract, by tip-top Sawyers," three gentlemen (?) in scarlet coats, small-clothes, and silk stockings, - comme il faut, - are seen engaged in painting the sign of the White Swan red; and two others of the same class are perceived painting the window of the Post Office in the same manner. Another of those "bloods" is making a stroke with his brush at the back of a flying watchman ; two others, like regular gutter-bullies, are engaged in personal contest with two watchmen, and three MEN in scarlet have a single watchman down and are daubing his face with paint.

The rhyme itself is headed Quick work without a contract. By tip-top sawyers:

Coming it strong with a Spree and a spread,
Milling the day-lights, or cracking the head;
Go it ye cripples! come tip us your mauleys,
Up with the lanterns, and down with the Charleys:

If lagg'd we should get, we can gammon the Beak,
Tip the slavies a Billy to stifle their squeak.
Come the bounce with the snobs, and a [blank] for their betters,
And prove all the Statutes so many dead letters.

That takes some deciphering but it is clearly a hymn of praise to going out and causing mayhem. It is heavy with the slang of the day and is in part translated into modern-day English like this:

To do was 'to rob or cheat'; sport was 'good fun or mayhem', so doing the thing in a sporting like manner would be to carry out the illegal revelry in high spirits.

Coming it strong with a Spree and a spread - spread here suggests the widespread mayhem,

Milling was fighting, so Milling the day-lights is the same as beating the living day-lights out of someone.

Go it ye cripples! - go it means, 'Keep at it! Fight hard'. Cripples may have its usual meaning, that is, disabled. A cripple was also a misshapen sixpence. Neither meaning seems to make much sense here though.

Come tip us your mauleys - shake hands.

Down with the Charleys - a Charley was a night watchman.

If lagg'd we should get, we can gammon the Beak - lagged is caught or arrested; gammon was patter or humbug; a beak was (and still is) a magistrate.

Tip the slavies a Billy to stifle their squeak - Bribe the servants to keep them from informing. A billy could be either a truncheon or club or, more likely, a sovereign (£1) coin that bore the effigy of King William.

Come the bounce with the snobs - To bounce was either to beat, to make an explosion, to knock loudly (especially at a door), to brag or to bully. Any one of these is plausible. A snob was a person of low rank or a cobbler's apprentice.

and a [blank] for their betters - the blank I will leave to your imagination.

The picture portrays actual streets in Melton and it is very likely that it was a representation of a real event. The newspaper report describes the red paint in Ackermann's picture, although that is difficult to discern in later prints. Neither the text of the picture nor later reports mention the Marquis of Waterford or, more importantly, the phrase 'paint the town red'. Actually, as pointed out above, the first use of the phrase in print is quite a lot later - not until 1883 in fact, and in New York, not Leicestershire. The New York Times, July 1883 has:

"Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk... Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to 'paint the town red'."

The other early references to the phrase also relate to America rather than England. The November 1884 edition of the Boston [Mass.] Journal has:

"Whenever there was any excitement or anybody got particularly loud, they always said somebody was 'painting the town red'."

The next is Rudyard Kipling. That's as English as you can get one would have thought. In this case though he too is referring to America - in his book Abaft Funnel, 1889:

"They would do their best towards painting that town [Chicago] in purest vermilion."

There are other theories too:

Jaipur (The Pink City) is the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan. The old buildings of the city are constructed from pink sandstone. In 1853 it was painted pink in honour of a visit from Prince Albert. If that were the origin though, why don't we paint the town pink?

William and Mary Morris in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins say it probably originated on the American frontier. They link it to 'red light district' and suggest that people out for a night 'on the town' might very well take it into their heads to make the whole town red. Well, they might, then again they might not.

It is sometimes said to come from the US slang use of "paint" to mean "drink", When someone's drunk their face and nose are flushed red, hence the analogy.

As so often, there are plausible suggestions but no conclusive evidence, so the jury is still out on this one. Based on what we currently have, it seems that the phrase originated in the USA around 1883 - there are many US citations of the phrase in print for that year and none earlier. How it came to be coined isn't known, but it could well have been the events in Melton in 1837 that prompted the coinage. I'm sure many people would join those in Melton Mowbray in believing the rogue Marquess as the originating source, but they don't have quite enough evidence for a conviction. However, they do make exceedingly good pies.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.