Look up the word pink in the Merriam-Webster Online Unabridged Dictionary, and you’ll find 13 entries for the single word, and 175 two-word entries in which one of the words is pink.
An impressive legacy for a word that entered the language in 1573 as the name of a plant and not a color.
The plant known as a “pink” has the Latin name dianthus. About 300 species of dianthus exist. The carnation belongs to this family.
No one is quite certain as to how dianthus plants came to be called “pinks.” It’s thought that the name derives from the jagged edges of the flower that look as if they’ve been “pinked.”
As a verb, pink has been in English since 1307 with the sense of “pierce, stab, make holes in.” It’s from this verb that pinking shears get their name.
pinking shears – scissors with a saw-toothed inner edge. They’re used to cut fabric in order to create a zig zag edge that won’t ravel.
Although dianthus flowers can be other shades, pink must have been the most familiar to have given us the word we now use to mean “pale red.”
“Pink-colored,” i.e. “colored like a pink,” is recorded in 1681. Pink as an adjective of color, meaning “pale rose color, is recorded in 1733.
NOTE: The practice of adding “colored” to words that already signifiy a specific color is a solecism that seems to be gaining ground. For example, it makes perfect sense to speak of “a Pepto-Bismol-colored house.” It is absurd to speak of “red-colored” area on a map. The area is red. It is a red area.
The word pinkie, as in “pinkie finger,” derives neither from the word for the color, nor from the word meaning “to pierce.” Apparently it comes from the Dutch diminutive pinkje. Dutch pink means “little.” Pinkie entered Scots dialect in the early 1800s with the meaning “little finger.” Scots speakers use pink to mean “a small gleam of light,” as in the expression “the pink of the evening,” i.e.,”late afternoon, early evening.”
Another use of pink without the color sense is the term fox hunters use for the red coats some of them wear. These hunting coats, although bright red, are called “pinks.” One explanation is that the first ones were created by a tailor called Pinque. No evidence exists to support this example of folk etymology. A more believable reason to call the red coats “pinks” has to do with the expression to be in the pink.
Nowadays, “to be in the pink,” usually means to be in top physical condition, but in Shakespeare’s time, “pink” meant something like “epitome” or “pinnacle of perfection.”
The dianthus was much admired by Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers. They may have considered it to be the “perfect” flower, beautiful to look at and delightful to smell.
When Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet, 1597), says ” I am the very pinke of curtesie,” he means that he is is not just courteous, but a model of courtesy.
Thackeray (1811-1863), uses the expresssion “in the very pink of the mode” to mean “at the very height of fashion.” Charles Dickens (1812-1870) called an Italian town he’d visited “the very pink of hideousness and squalid misery.”
The appearance of a rider in the signature red hunting coat is very dashing, almost as dazzling as a U.S. Marine in full dress uniform. It’s quite possible that such a rider in his scarlet coat was said to be “in the pink of fashion” and the expression dwindled to the noun “pink” for such a coat.
Here are some other expressions that have evolved from the word pink with its meaning of “pale red.”
pink-eye – the common name for an inflammation of the membrane of the inner eyelid. It’s extremely contagious. Some animals also suffer from it. The term was first recorded in 1882.
pinko – a term of political contempt and mistrust applied to persons who hold liberal views regarding government and economics. Red is a color associated with revolution. Presumably “pinkos” are not quite as extreme as “communists,” who are often called “reds.” The term pinko entered the language in 1936, but the the word pink was used as early as 1837 to describe people whose views “have a tendency toward ‘red.’ ”
to see pink elephants – “to experience delirium tremens (or hallucinate) because of over-consumption of alcohol.” Jack London used this expression in a story in 1913.
pink slip – “discharge notice.” When the word was coined, employers often informed employees that they’d been terminated by placing a notice written on a pink sheet of paper in their final pay envelope. First recorded use 1915.
pink collar – “blue collar job” has long been understood to mean a job requiring work clothes as opposed to a “white-collar job” performed by office workers. In 1977 someone introduced the expression “pink collar” to refer to jobs held by women. Understandably and deservedly, it didn’t catch on.