Not being British, I was fascinated a while back to learn that green ink is considered the medium of the lunatic fringe in the UK.
That little bit of lore became even more interesting recently when I heard that it is a long and continuing tradition for the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service to sign all documents in green ink.
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1. MI6 Secret Service
The oddness of the idea that green ink bears so much meaning and the ironic connection between the psychologically challenged and the professionally paranoid bore more investigation. How exactly did the color green come to have such negative significance to the British?
No one seems to be able to say for sure which came first, but it appears that the tradition of the SIS – also known as MI6 – using green ink was established before the color became associated with nutty behavior.
In 1909, Mansfield Cummings became the first head of MI6 and fell into the habit of signing all of his documents with the letter “C,” always written in green ink. There is some speculation that this was a carryover from his days in the armed services, where senior officers supposedly used green ink.
For whatever reason, it became a tradition for the UK’s chief spy both to use green ink and to sign only as “C.” The green ink practice continues to this day, and is briefly discussed in the BBC radio program “MI6 – A Century in the Shadows.”
2. The Green Ink Brigade
Meanwhile, journalists in the UK frequently refer to the crazy letters they receive from readers as coming from the “green ink brigade.” The Guardian even goes so far as to instruct readers to avoid using green ink if they write letters to the editor.
The general consensus seems to be that the term comes from the fact that many of the nuttier letters that journalists receive are written in bright colors, or with words underlined heavily with bright inks.
As one Guardian writer put it several years ago, “Few who have worked in newspaper offices open letters addressed in green ink without trepidation, knowing the contents are likely to be some diatribe in favor of site value rating, or against fluoridation, or perhaps about bimetallism, if people still care about that.”
3. History of the Green Ink Designation
Michael Quinion, who runs the World Wide Words site, tried to dig into the history of the green ink designation. While he didn’t discover any definitive origin for the term as applied to eccentrics, he did turn up several interesting early uses.
The first, he said, came from the 1953 satire by Kingsley Amis called “Lucky Jim.” In it, the main character receives a dubious letter “ill-written in green ink.” Then, Carl Sagan also mentioned green ink 20 years later in his book, “The Cosmic Connection.
According to Quinion, Sagan described a letter in this way:
“There came in the post an eighty-five-page handwritten letter, written in green ball-point ink, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa. He had read a report in a local newspaper that I had thought it possible that life exists on other planets; he wished to reassure me that I was entirely correct in this supposition, as he knew from his own personal knowledge.”
Quinion also documents several instances in the ’80s and ’90s of British newspapers – including the Independent and the News Statesman – using the term to describe actions or correspondence that seemed less-than-sane. He offered this note from a 1985 article in the Guardian:
“The expression is the more-or-less affectionate description given by journalists and politicians to the people who write them eccentric letters, often in block capitals and frequently underlined in multicoloured inks. For some reason I have never heard satisfactorily explained, the most obsessive of these correspondents seem to prefer green.”
How it all got started it still a mystery. However, it’s not uncommon for paranoids in the US to have all sorts of crazy fantasies involving the CIA or aliens, or maybe both working together. Given that, you have to wonder if the knowledge that the chief of MI6 uses green ink hasn’t fuelled at least a few lunatics’ imaginations, to the point that they, too, began writing in green ink as a way to give themselves more authority.
Whatever the origin, it appears that cranks now are moving on from green ink to angry anonymous comments left online, leading Victoria Coren, writing in The Observer, to lament, “Why does nobody use the post anymore? Facebook threats, abusive calls: I miss the old-fashioned hate mail of yesteryear. I haven’t seen green ink for ages.”
4. Schools Moving Away From Red Ink
It’s even showing up in British schools, as teachers move away from using red ink to mark incorrect papers. The former headmaster and Telegraph contributor Peter Dix, for one, is not a fan of the practice of using green ink in schools.
“The green ink is a worthy but unnecessary attempt by an older generation of teachers to get away from the negative and sometimes sarcastic marking they suffered in school, which of course was always done in red. Today’s children know nothing of this; they are just as likely to associate green with frogs and sprouts, and red with Father Christmas and tomato sauce.”
5. Green Ink Pen Recommendations:
There are some good green ink ballpoint pens around, but the gel ink and rollerballs are a lot smoother to write with and have denser or more vibrant colors. These are a few of my favorites to help you on your journey of green ink discovery & join the rest of us eccentrics in the lunatic fringe. You may also like to see what the Top 5 Green Ink Pens are.
Pentel Energel XM BL77 Ink Gel Pen
These are one of my all-time favorite pens smooth writing, nice vibrant colors and quick-drying which is great for left-handers. I prefer pens with a wider barrel when holding this pen it feels quite nicely balanced & the rubber grip is quite comfortable.
Pentel EnerGel-X BL107 Ink Gel Pen
This uses the same ink as the Energel Deluxe RTX making it a smooth writer with vibrant ink color, the main difference is that it perhaps looks more modern with its green colored translucent barrel & rubber grip.
Pilot G2 07 Ink Gel Pen
Another one of my go-to pens is the Pilot G2 07 probably one of the most famous pens there is and it just feels like it was made to be held to write with. The gel ink is perhaps a bit denser than the Pentels but again it is a very smooth writer.
Pilot Precise V5 RT Liquid Ink Rollerball Pen
The free-flowing liquid ink from these pens makes them an absolute pleasure to write with and it is a nice vibrant color. However, it does take longer to dry so perhaps not the best choice for left-handed writers.
Pilot Frixion Clicker Erasable Ink
Pilot Frixion is the best erasable pen ever made, seriously nothing else comes close. They may not be as smoother a writer like some of the other pens in this list. But if you like green ink and doing crosswords and puzzles or just want to be able to correct your mistakes you can’t go far wrong.
Uni-Ball Jetstream SXN-150 Green Ink Gel Pen
A smooth writing gel pen with superfast drying ink these are a firm favorite with left-handed writers. The lime green ink is a nice subtler shade of green. Again it quite a modern-looking pen with a green colored barrel, transparent window, and rubber grip.
And who doesn’t get bored sometimes with plain old blue or black?
But you tell me, now, readers – what do you know about the green ink brigade, and does the lore keep you from using green in your correspondence?
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