Red Alert! It's the Colour Red Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Red Alert! It's the Colour Red

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A red rose.
She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

Red is a very bold, striking colour, it's not easily ignored. Red is a colour to wear when you want to be noticed, there are no red wallflowers! A primary colour, red is a good 'mixer': red plus yellow creates orange, and red plus white makes pink. Crimson red and ultramarine blue will create the colour purple. Red is the traditional Chinese wedding colour, and in other East Asian countries as well, the connotation is good fortune and happiness. In ancient Rome, laws were written in red ochre and were called Rubric; important documents such as these would then be looked after by the Vestal Virgins. For some African countries red is the colour of mourning, and in such areas the Red Cross use a green symbol in place of their usual red.

Red stands for 'danger' eg the red traffic light means 'Stop!' Creatures which are in danger of becoming extinct are flagged by the IUCN on their 'Red list'. We say we're 'in the red' when our finances aren't healthy, as opposed to 'in the black', when the balance is positive. We 'go red' when we're embarrassed (or just blush1 at a compliment). To 'see red' is to lose one's temper, and waving a red rag at a bull is supposed to enrage it, though that's probably down to being tormented than the actual colour annoying it. Red-letter days are important days. They can be exceptionally good days, like when you find out your numbers have come up in the lottery and you also remembered to purchase your ticket, or exceptionally bad, such as the day you stand trial for lottery fraud. Schoolchildren would be horrified to find their homework handed back covered in red ink, as that is the colour teachers choose to mark incorrect text or answers. The 'red-light district' is an area where prostitutes ply their trade.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Light is made by vibrating electric charges. The frequency depends upon the rate at which the charges are vibrating, so the frequency produces different types of electromagnetic (EM) waves. Certain frequencies gives us visible light which begins with red, moving through orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Visible light has wavelengths between 400 nanometres (blue end) and 700nm (red end). Human eyes can only see these but they are in fact only a small proportion of the electromagnetic spectrum. At the extreme opposite ends of the visible spectrum are infrared and ultraviolet, which can be detected only with special equipment. Red is one of the colours that we can see. In the rainbow it is the first (outer) colour. The red light reaching your eye from the rainbow has been deflected by the raindrops through an angle of 42°.

Paints, Pigments and Dyes

Man-made objects are often coloured with pigments or dyes; these work by absorbing light of wavelengths other than that of the colour of the object, which is reflected. Therefore red objects reflect red light which has wavelengths between 625nm and 700nm.

Dyes are soluble and pigments are insoluble. Humans have been utilising natural substances around them since prehistory; Neanderthals were making use of red ochre 180,000 years ago. They would decorate their bodies and possessions, and create artwork on walls of caves. The colouring agents were created from minerals found in rocks, but these didn't work when applied to fabrics, therefore a technique using dyes, which are mainly organic compounds, had to be used. This was only perfected through trial and error.

Shades of Red

Blood; Brick; Burgundy; Cardinal; Cerise; Cherry; Crimson; Fire Engine; Garnet; Madder; Magenta; Maroon; Persian; Pillar Box; Poker; Rose; Ruby; Sangria; Scarlet; Sienna; Venetian; Vermilion; Wine.


Some people regard being born with red hair as a kind of curse. In ancient times it was mainly redheads who were burnt as witches. It doesn't help that they were probably nicknamed 'ginger nut' or 'carrot top' at school. 'Strawberry blonde' is the charming moniker given to those with very fair red hair. Redheads have fair skin to accompany their striking hair and, quite possibly, lots of freckles too. All people should take care regarding sun-exposure, but redheads seem to 'burn' easier and quicker, suffering sunburn more than most. Midwives take extra-special care of red-haired mothers during childbirth because they are more prone to haemorrhage than non-redheads, a well-known phenomenon although no one knows why this should be so.

A redhead in Australia would probably earn themselves the slang name 'bluey'. Famous redheads include King Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, Lucille Ball, Paul 'Red' Adair, Erik the Red (a Viking explorer), the 'Red Baron' (Manfred von Richthofen), singers Lulu and Cilla Black, actress Patsy Palmer, DJ Chris Evans, Belgian singer Axelle Red, Prince Harry of Wales, Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York) and her daughter Princess Beatrice of York.

Natural redhead Nicola Roberts of the pop group Girls Aloud attempted to 'fit in' by dying her hair brunette and using fake tanning products on her fair skin. However, common sense prevailed when she realised how beautiful and unique her natural colouring was and embraced it, eventually launching a skin care range of cosmetics for women with fair and sensitive skin like herself.

Redheads abound in cartoon and film as well, most notably Wilma Flintstone (and her daughter Pebbles), Strawberry Shortcake, Daphne from Scooby Doo, Fry from Futurama, Dexter from Dexter's Laboratory, Princess Fiona from Shrek, Ariel from Disney's The Little Mermaid, Red Rackham is a pirate in Tintin, Batman's foe Poison Ivy and the arch-enemy of Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam.

Red in Outer Space

Red Stars

The stars with the coolest temperatures are classified 'M', which means they are red stars. They can be any size or mass, for example, Betelgeuse  (alpha Orionis) is a variable red supergiant. Other, smaller examples are red dwarfs, which are exceedingly common throughout the Universe. Red dwarfs in our galaxy include the 20 light year-distant local neighbour Gliese 581 which has a triple planetary system. Even closer to us, at just under six light years2 distance, is Proxima Ophiuchi aka Barnard's Star3.

Red Planet

The 'red planet' Mars is the fourth planet in our Solar System. There are h2g2 entries on the exploration of Mars and also a suspected pyramid. Let's not forget that Doctor Who enemies the Ice Warriors supposedly hailed from the red planet!

Red Nebula

One of the most luminous stars known to us is called the Pistol Star. It creates a red nebula, known as the Pistol Nebula, with the matter it ejects via extremely massive stellar eruptions. The nebula is four light years wide, which is comparable to the distance between our Sun and Proxima Centauri, the next nearest star!


Redshift is indicative of motion away from our Solar System.

Red in Nature

The redness in human4 blood is due to the iron component, but not all blood in the animal kingdom is red. For example, octopus' blood is blue.

The red colours of green leaves are present all the year around, but are masked by chlorophyll which dominates in the spring and summer. The chlorophyll decays during autumn creating such a splendid show.

Red Trees

Coastal Redwoods have their own Entry.

Red Flowers

Different-coloured flowers are generally thought to have special meanings, in particular, the Victorians were fond of this notion. Red flowers popularly represent declarations of love, particularly red roses, and a red carnation is sometimes worn by someone wanting to be identified (as on a 'blind' date). Red poppies are worn from late October to mid-November to remember fallen servicemen and women. One tiny wildflower is called Scarlet Pimpernel, but its petals are a peachy/orange colour. Some well-known red flowers are:

Red Sky

There is an old saying: Red sky at night, shepherd's5 delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor's warning. Basically it means that if there's a red sunset, the next day's weather will be fine, but a red dawn warns of an approaching storm.

The Red Sea

The origin of the name the Red Sea in Jordan is unclear; it could refer to the colour of the surrounding land, or a mistranslation of 'Yam Suph', Hebrew for 'Sea of reeds' which turned to 'Reed Sea'. Or it could be because of a red colouration due to some dying seaweed (Trichodesmium erythraeum).

Red Precious Stones

The ruby is the birthstone for people born in the month of July, and is supposed to represent love, passion, protection and harmony. Rubies vary between dark blood-red and fiery crimson in colour. They look fabulous when teamed with diamonds. Ruby is a popular girls' Christian name. Married couples reaching their 40th wedding anniversary are said to celebrate their 'Ruby Wedding'. Dorothy's way home in The Wizard of Oz was via clicking together a pair of sparkling ruby shoes which once belonged to a wicked witch.

Garnet is a semi-precious gem which represents those who were born in the month of January. Traditionally encompassing the fire element, it is said to instil warmth, ward off nightmares and protect the blood.

Alexandrite has a unique ability in that it can change colour according to the light it is displayed in. In natural light it appears green or blue-green, but under artificial light they turn red. Originally mined in Russia, these very rare stones were named after the tsar Alexander II and lauded as the Russian precious gem emblem. Other mines produced alexandrites but these did not exhibit the desired chameleon effect, so the Russian crop was coveted. Finally the mines were exhausted and alexandrites became so rare they were never found on the open market. Recently, however, some which did display the colour-change ability were discovered in Hematita, Brazil, and now alexandrites are back in demand.

The British Crown Jewels boast some spectacular, priceless jewellery, in fact it's the best collection of regalia in the world. In the Imperial State Crown is the Black Prince's Ruby, which is actually a 170-carat red spinel. There is also the stunning 'Timur Ruby' necklace, again, containing red spinels, including the centrepiece 361-carat stone.

Red Creatures

Albino creatures have red eyes, but they are actually colourless; the red effect is from the blood vessels at the back of the eye.

Red squirrels are native to the British Isles, but their territory is being overrun by an interloper, the grey squirrel, leading to a decline in numbers of the reds. The thought of exterminating the greys to preserve the abode of the reds doesn't sit well with some people and attempts are being made to isolate the two species to allow them both to thrive. Red squirrels are on the 2000 IUCN Red List as 'Lower Risk'.

  • Irish Red Setters are a long-haired breed of dog.
  • Red Pandas have their own Entry.
  • The Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has reddish-brown fur with white chest and a long bushy tail. They inhabit Europe, Asia, North America and Canada. The red fox is the animal symbol of Hokkaido in Japan.
  • Red Kites are birds of prey native to the UK.
  • Red-legged partridges are non-native British birds.
  • The male European robin has a striking red breast.
  • The Red-bellied black snake has its own Entry.
  • Red insects and creepy-crawlies range from the much-loved ladybird to the hated (and various) red mites that blight orchards.

Red Fungi

Read about the Amanita muscaria toadstool in the Entry The Influence of Fly Agaric on the Iconography of Father Christmas.

Red Food and Drink

There are red fruits like strawberries, cherries, raspberries and pomegranate. There's a variety of cabbage called red cabbage, and the onion also has a red cousin. Capsicums are sweet red peppers. Ripe tomatoes are red and extremely versatile, a salad wouldn't be the same without them, and they make excellent garnish, pizza topping, soup and sauces. It is easy to prepare a monochrome red meal! Red drinks include red beer, the 'Red Lady' and red wine.

Red Wine

Red wine is a popular alcoholic drink made from fermented grapes. Its history can be dated back to 7000 BC. Ceramic vases sealed in Pharaoh Tutankhamun's  tomb had traces of red wine, though the contents had evaporated. Some studies show that drinking red wine in moderation is beneficial to health, in particular it is good for the blood regulation and heart function. Red wine is usually the alcoholic beverage of choice when partaking of a meal consisting of red meat like beef, steak and lamb. h2g2 entries on red wine are:


Redcoats are the nickname for the employees of Butlin's holiday camps. They assist and entertain the holidaymakers. Some redcoats later became famous personalities, like Jimmy Tarbuck, Johnny Ball, Des O'Connor and Charlie Drake.

A 'redcoat' was also a nickname for a British soldier from around the mid-1600s until the late 19th Century because their uniform coats were coloured red. Today the colour is still used by some regiments but it is mostly their ceremonial dress uniform, eg the Coldstream Guards who can be seen guarding Buckingham Palace.

Red Berets

Red berets are part of the uniform worn by some military units like the Parachute Regiment and the Military Police. There is also a 1953 film called The Red Berets.

Red Flags

'Red flag' is an alert — when something needs immediate attention or rectifying, or to warn others of danger or something hazardous: eg a red flag flies at a beach where swimming should not be considered due to undercurrents or fast outgoing tides, and a red flag means 'stop' on a railway, etc. Red flags also signify martial law. Socialist movements used red flags as their banners; their supporters are known as 'reds' or 'redites'.

Red is a popular colour in ensigns and national flags. Some countries have a striped flag made up of different colours; those with red as a stripe include: the UK (with white and blue); the USA (with white and blue); Andorra (with blue and yellow); Belgium (with yellow and black); Italy (with green and white); France (with blue and white); Afghanistan (with black and green); The Netherlands (horizontal with blue and white); Austria (two horizontal red stripes sandwiched with white); Azerbaijan (horizontal with blue and green); Germany (horizontal with gold and black); Egypt (horizontal with white and black); Bolivia (horizontal with yellow and green); and Spain (yellow with top and bottom red strips).

The flag of Japan is white with a red circle, said to represent the rising sun (Japan is known as 'land of the rising sun'). The flag of the Soviet Union is predominantly red, as are those of China, Bermuda, Bahrain, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Morocco, Oman, Albania and Montenegro. Malta's flag is half-red, half-white, as is Poland's. Angola's flag is red and black and Algeria's is half-green, half-white with a red crescent moon and red star superimposed. Canada's flag is bordered red with a white middle portion and a red maple leaf in the centre. The national flag of England is a red cross on a white background; this is also known as 'St George's Cross'. The flag of Wales is a red dragon superimposed on a background of top half white and bottom half green.

Other flags with a predominance of red include: Norway (blue and white cross on a red background); Denmark (white cross on a red background); and Iceland (red and white cross on a blue background). Samoa's is three quarters red and the upper left corner is a blue base displaying the stars of Crux 'the Southern Cross' in white.

The Red Lion is a mythical creature which adorns many pub signs and features on many standards and flags.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent

The Red Cross and Red Crescent is the internationally-recognised humanitarian organisation which was founded in 1863. The volunteers work with impartiality and neutrality to support vulnerable people in their own locations, such as victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters as well as refugees.

Red Ribbons

Fundraising for charity nowadays includes the purchase of ribbons which can be worn on clothing to demonstrate the wearer's support of the cause. Red ribbons represent AIDS charities. A red ribbon is also available as a charity pin badge. Sir Elton John has his own AIDS charity to which he donates all the profits from his UK and US recording sales.

Red Transport

Red London buses are famous the world over. Cliff Richard drove one all over Europe in the 1960s musical film Summer Holiday, and regenerated mummies swarmed all over one in an exciting chase scene from The Mummy Returns.

In the UK postal vans and fire engines are red. However, fire engines are originally painted white, then the layers of varnish give it the high-gloss red colour. Kew Bridge Steam Museum in London holds an annual Fire Engine rally if you fancy seeing some old appliances like this 1914 Dennis N-Type Braidwood Body fire engine.

The Red Arrows are based at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire. Some people think the Red Arrows may be jinxed due to several mishaps.

A red traffic light in the UK is an instruction that drivers must stop. When the amber light is displayed with the red, that means drivers can prepare to start driving again, because after that sequence is green for 'go'.

Red in Sport

Potting a red ball in snooker earns you a point, allowing you another shot at a 'colour', so long as you don't then go 'in off' or foul your shot by potting something you shouldn't with the ricochet.

If a football referee flashes his red card at you that means you've had a sending off, which equates to an early bath. The rest of your team will then have to run their socks off covering the ground you should have done and will probably be so displeased with you that you might get sent to Coventry!

Some football teams play in a strip which is predominantly red, for example Liverpool FC, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Scunthorpe United and Bradford City.

Red in Literature, TV and Film

Red was used for clothing in the very first black and white movies, as apparently the resulting grey colour on film would look better than the one portrayed by true grey clothes.

  • The ruby slippers played a very important part in The Wizard of Oz.

  • Will Scarlet was one of Robin Hood's legendary band of 'Merrie Men'. They all supposedly wore Lincoln Green outfits to blend in with their forestry surroundings, so we can only imagine that Will Scarlet, who wore red, wanted to be seen!

  • Little Red Riding Hood is a fairy tale — a story about a girl who encounters a wolf while she is visiting her grandmother. The outcome of the story can be varied according to the age of the listening child.

  • Red Dwarf is a popular science fiction series starring the last human alive, a sentient cat, an android, a hologram and a ship's computer named Holly.

  • Le Rouge et le Noir, is Stendhal's famous novel. Several interpretations exist for the title: red might symbolise the army and black the clergy; red stands for blood and passion while black represents death and mourning.

  • Red shirts denoted crew members in Star Trek who were invited along on away missions purely so they could be killed off on the alien planet. The Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott ('Scotty') of the original series also wore a red shirt, but he survived every episode because he stayed put in the engine room of the Enterprise.


Red Nose Day is the official fund-raising day for Comic Relief.

Red Carpet and Cushion

A red carpet is rolled out in preparation for a visit by VIPs like royalty, and at film premières for the attending actors.

A red velvet cushion is usually used to hold a medal or honour before it is presented to its intended recipient.

Red in Music

There is a Russian rock group called Igor and Red Elvises, who have been going since 1996. They aren't a bunch of red-loving Elvis Impersonators whatever their name might imply, although they do wear a lot of red and they have released a song entitled 'Shake Your Pelvis'. Simply Red are a popular group fronted by lead singer Mick Hucknall (who is a redhead). Some songs with 'red' or red colours in the title are:

  • 'Red Red Wine'
  • '99 Red Balloons'
  • 'Red Skies'
  • 'Red Guitar'
  • 'Red Dress'
  • 'Red Light Spells Danger'
  • 'Red Sails In The Sunset'

A Few Other Songs Featuring Red:
  • 'Scarlet O'Hara'
  • 'Cherry Pie'
  • 'Scarlet Ribbons'
  • 'Ruby Tuesday'
  • 'Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town'

Shouldn't be Red

Urine should be pale yellow, the colour of straw. If you notice it's red one morning, don't panic. Ask yourself if you ate beetroot the previous day. If you did, that vegetable does stain some people's pee, but only until the pigment has flushed through the plumbing system. If you haven't consumed beetroot then it's probably blood. Again, don't panic, there can be innocuous reasons for this, like joggers' bladder  (you just ran a little too fast and bruised an internal organ). The medical term for blood in the urine is haematuria and you'll need to go see a doctor for tests to find out the cause.

Red-eye is the dreaded result in a photograph which is an unfortunate result of the camera flash. Luckily most photography software offers the option to reduce the red-eye affliction although the result isn't always the subject's natural eye colour. Photos taken outside in natural light very rarely generate the horrible disfiguration.

Miscellaneous Red Things

  • Some h2g2 Smileys like the 'grr' (angry face) and the 'devil'.

  • Red or Dead is a fashion outlet started by Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway.

Red Stuff in the EG

1Blushing is a result of blood rushing to the skin's surface.2A light year is the distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion km.3You may remember this is the 'roundabout' mentioned by Ford Prefect to Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams' essential read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.4Although one patient in Canada was found to have green blood!5Basically any outdoor worker can be substituted here.

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