Blue, white, and red. No. Red, blue, and white. No...
November 9, 2018 8:51 AM   Subscribe

My coworker stumped me so I'm asking you. Why is the phrase always "Red, white, and blue"? If you say it in any other order, it sounds bizarre. Why is that? Is there an original source that went viral back in the olden days and now we're just used to it? Or is it a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife situation, and if so, what is the name of the rule in play?
posted by blnkfrnk to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Per Wikipedia, the UK also uses red, white, and blue in that order, so it seems like you would have to go back to that, since that's probably where the US colors come from (I'm assuming that you would have specified UK if that's what you meant in the first place, but perhaps I'm wrong). The UK colors are taken from England (red and white) and Scotland (blue and white), so maybe Scotland was last?

I think there are lots of phrases like that. I once read something that said the punishment for using the phrase "kith and kin" should be having to use "kith" in a separate sentence.
posted by FencingGal at 9:12 AM on November 9, 2018

It's a slogan, nothing more. Purple, Green, and Orange? Or Orange, Green, and Purple? To my ear, neither sounds better than the other. There's nothing inherent about the colors or the language to put them in any particular order.

Lots of college color schemes work the same way: Ohio State is Scarlet and Grey; Michigan is Blue & Gold. It's never any other way around, because those are slogans; rallying cries. They don't mean "These three colors". They mean "Our standard", and uniformity reinforces that meaning.

Also, looks like there's some AskMe history on this topic. See here and here, where the answer appears to be an early work allowed the order to standardize in the popular consciousness.
posted by dbx at 9:15 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Because in US (and apparently UK) English, it's a phrase, not a list. You're not actually describing the colors, you are using a colloquialism.
posted by crush at 9:16 AM on November 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

There's a lot of interesting work in linguistics about the order of adjectives in a noun phrase. There seems to be fairly regular patternings of adjectives in a noun phrase, even cross-linguistically. As far as I know, and this isn't my field of expertise in the slightest, so I welcome any corrections, there isn't a lot of research about the order of subcategories of adjectives. My guess, then, is like the others': it's simply a conventionalized ordering, a kind of slogan, as dbx has said.
posted by lilies.lilies at 9:18 AM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Here in the Netherlands, we have the same three colours in our flag. We consistently name them red, white and blue in that order, because from top to bottom, that's the order they appear in. Maybe the habit spread to other countries that have those colours?
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:18 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think it's a natural ordering based on the length of the vowel. It is why Jim, Jack and Jones sounds better than Jones, Jack and Jim.
posted by vacapinta at 9:22 AM on November 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

In France, it's more properly bleu, blanc, et rouge ("blue, white, and red"). I learned that from Captain Picard.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:27 AM on November 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think the vowel length explanation sounds pretty plausible. I'd add that the song "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean," formerly used as an informal national anthem, is also known as "Britannia, Pride of the Ocean," so perhaps it played some role in fixing the order for both the US and UK. I've found at least one later poem in which the order varies to achieve a certain rhyme, so not everyone agrees it sounds wrong to be otherwise.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:28 AM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think it's just convention.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Ah, I understand the allusion. Colors representing countries at a time when they competed with each other. Red, white and blue for the United States, whereas the French... more properly used the same colors in the order blue, white and red.
posted by bleep at 9:30 AM on November 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

There's a lot of interesting work in linguistics about the order of adjectives in a noun phrase. There seems to be fairly regular patternings of adjectives in a noun phrase, even cross-linguistically.

When the adjectives come from different semantic categories, yes, there are patterns. For instance, size usually comes before age, so it's a little old lady and not an old little lady. Quality comes before color, so it's an ugly orange toaster and not an orange ugly toaster.

But within the semantic category of color, there aren't grammatical rules about what comes first. Mostly, any order is possible: it can be a red and green sweater or a green and red sweater. Sometimes a specific phrase gets frozen in a specific order: bruises are black and blue, not blue and black — but even then, the order "blue and black" is still grammatical for describing other things (like The Dress).

tl;dr: Yes, linguistics has a lot to say about the order of adjectives from different categories, but not much to say about this case where the adjectives come from the same category. There's nothing ungrammatical about "blue, red, and white," no linguistic principle it violates. It just happens not to be the order we're in the habit of using in this specific context.

posted by nebulawindphone at 9:33 AM on November 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Maybe because it's a grand old flag, it's a high-flying flag, and forever in peace may it wave? The emblem of the land I love, the home of the free and the brave? Every heart beats true for the red, white, and blue?
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:41 AM on November 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Google Ngrams results for the phrase and its competitors are kind of interesting. RWB order didn't take off in print until the 1860s, but it's been well ahead of all its competitors ever since.

I think that's further evidence for "It's cultural history, not linguistics." If there was a rule of English grammar (or a norm of English aesthetics) saying those colors need to be mentioned in that order, people would have been doing it ever since there were English-speaking countries with red, white, and blue flags. The fact that it only took off later suggests that we're dealing with a cultural event, not a linguistic principle.

In particular, the timing is consistent with that cultural event being the one mentioned in this comment in an earlier thread: a popular song from the Crimean War in the 1850s.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:58 AM on November 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Not just vowel length but where the sound is made in the mouth. Steven Pinker (I know, I know) talks about this in The Language Instinct. I don’t have the book handy but here’s a quote from the intro (from some online quotes site):
“Why is it ping-pong and pitter-patter rather than pong-ping and patter-pitter? Why dribs and drabs, rather than vice versa? Why can't a kitchen be span and spic? Whence riff-raff, mish-mash, flim-flam, chit-chat, tit for tat, knick-knack, zig-zag, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, criss-cross, shilly-shally, see-saw, hee-haw, flip-flop, hippity-hop, tick-tock, tic-tac-toe, eeny-meeny-miney-moe, bric-a-brac, clickety-clack, hickory-dickory-dock, kit and kaboodle, and bibbity-bobbity-boo? The answer is that the vowels for which the tongue is high and in the front always come before the vowels for which the tongue is low and in the back.”
I think within the book itself he goes into detail about *why* vowels in these echoic/singsong phrases fall in this pattern, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
posted by miles per flower at 10:08 AM on November 9, 2018 [11 favorites]

In the France case, the tricolor is blue, white, and red from left to right, so "bleu-blanc-rouge" makes sense. See also the German Schwarz-Rot-Gold (black-red-gold, listing the colors from top to bottom). So it seems like when there is a natural order in the flag itself, that gets used.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:55 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was told by a history buff in college that the RWB order comes from the original specification of the flag's blazon. If you've ever done an SCA event, you might know those words, but if not, "blazon" or "blazonry" is the specific terminology medieval folk used to discuss the layout of flags and crests. It was considered essential that there should be a formalized language to describe such things, since cameras didnt exist, because if you need 500 flags for a battle then you damn well need them all to match.

The blazon language is a mix of French and Old English, and the blazon for the American flag reads thus: "Barry of thirteen gules and argent, on a canton azure fifty mullets argent". What's that mean? I'll break it down:

Barry of thirteen -- "barry" means an arrangement of equal horizontal stripes
Gules and argent -- old words meaning red and white. The fact that red is mentioned first denotes that it's at the top of the flag, and the barry alternates
On a canton -- meaning in the upper left corner, on top of the barry
Azure -- The canton is blue
Fifty mullets argent -- fifty white stars (Mullet is an old word that specifically means "five-pointed star", there are other words for six and seven pointed stars)

Now, that's the modern flag, but the original blazon of the Coat of Arms that Jefferson made official lists the colors in the same order: gules, argent, and azure which has become our modern "red, white and blue".
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 10:58 AM on November 9, 2018 [25 favorites]

I wish The Great Pluto Cangsta hadn't posted. The blazonry and heraldry is a cut by Occam's Razor. Before that I had a theory about the ordering of adjectives from the same semantic category based a bit on information theory, euphony, and parsimony.

Basically, the order that is the easiest to say while having a lazy mouth that still sounds nice to the ear and is redundant enough to not be misheard will be the ordering that will win out in the end.

This sorta boils down to the sentiment: "you tend to speak more like a native when you're a bit drunk" but with the emphasis on the lazy pronunciation / enunciation (slurring) instead of the "lowered inhibitions".
posted by zengargoyle at 1:25 PM on November 9, 2018

As miles per flower mentioned, there's a rule about vowel sounds that isn't included in grammar books. It's related to ablaut reduplication (and no, I don't keep that phrase in my head; every time, I have to google for 'big bad wolf linguistics' and follow the chain of articles until I find one that includes the technical term); however, that covers words that are mostly repeated with a changed vowel.

"Red, white, blue" isn't repetitive, but the vowel changes do go in order - the mouth gradually closes to say them. Compare: try saying heads might lose vs true rye bread, and find out which one feels easier to say.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:55 PM on November 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

Nthing that it's mostly due to the physiology of pronouncing the vowels.
posted by dancing leaves at 2:03 PM on November 9, 2018

…Michigan is Blue & Gold. It's never any other way around
"Maize and Blue", surely.

Unless you're talking about the alma mater, in which case it's "Yellow and Blue".
posted by Cogito at 3:18 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Three phase electrical power in Canada and the US generally uses three colours for phase identification. Canadians use Red, Black, Blue and the Americans use Red, Blue, Black. The latter sounds wrong, wrong, wrong to me but presumably the reverse would be true for American electricians.
posted by Mitheral at 7:13 PM on November 9, 2018

Here's a song about the Australian flag - "red, blue, and white". It sounds fine to me.

INXS Underneath the Colours
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:20 PM on November 10, 2018

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