The True Meaning of "Livid"?

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Aug 3 14:57:54 UTC 2000

Looking at a lot of evidence that I have at my disposal, including the OED
but going far beyond it, and seeing how many colors have been prefixed by
the word "livid," and looking at how the adverb "lividly" is used, an
answer is beginning to occur to me.  Is it possible that "livid" has been
used for centuries as an intensifier, that a livid red is an intense red,
a livid gray is a very pale gray, etc.?  How else to explain a word whose
etymological roots relate to blue, but which has been strongly associated
with anger, with fear, and with death?

At the least, it is clear to me that the history of "livid" is a very
complex one, and when I search historical texts for the word I feel I am
glimpsing its complexity in a way that no previous lexicographer has done.
The OED may have had sufficient evidence to glimpse that complexity, but
appears to have failed to put that evidence together in a coherent

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Public Services     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  and Lecturer in Legal Research            Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: fred.shapiro at

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