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Sky-blue pink

Q From Ellen Smithee, California: I heard a phrase a few years back from a former colleague. She was telling me about a poem she wrote that was about a sky-blue pink dress; when I asked about this, she said it was a phrase for a magical fantasy color that she had always known. Are you familiar with it?

A Yes, and it was well known to my mother in London in the 1940s and also to my wife’s mother, another Londoner. British people have several elaborations of it, mostly half a century old or more. Examples include sky-blue pink with purple dots, sky-blue pink with yellow spots on, and sky-blue pink with a heavenly border. A form once popular in northern England was sky-blue pink with a finny addy border, in which finny addy is a corruption of finnan haddock, a type of cold-cured smoked fish, named after Findon in Scotland; I’d guess its yellowish colour was the reason for including it.

The expression has been variously used — by exasperated adults to children when pestered about names for colours, as a “mind your own business” off-putting reply to an unwanted question, a sarcastic description of some over-the-top or inappropriate colour, as a hand-waving term meaning “whatever colour you want”, or a dismissive comment to the effect that colour doesn’t matter:

The father-of-three is furious that he has been convicted of being racist towards Irish people. ... He said the fact that they were Irish had nothing to do with the situation and it would have made no difference whether they were green Martians or coloured sky blue pink.

BBC News, 12 May 2004.

All this might suggest that it’s British, but it turns out to be American. The earliest examples appear in US sources near the end of the nineteenth century:

Brilliant colors in masculine garb are beginning to appear in Paris. ... The innovation will be a boon to some of our young men, who will find ample exercise for their faculties in determining whether pea green or sky blue pink would better suit their various complexions.

The Haverhill Daily Bulletin, Massachusetts, 14 July 1881.

“I can’t tell the colour,” said Binns. “It was like a sky blue pink, with a shade of greeny brown, or something like that.”

Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner, 13 September 1893.

We can only surmise where it comes from, but there are many examples of advertisements both before and after these examples in which the range of colours for some item put sky-blue and pink next to each other (“Paris cashmere shawls. Cardinal, cream, sky-blue, pink, tan, wine”). You would only have to leave out a comma to create a fictitious new colour.

The reason for its continuing popularity may be linked to a series of US children’s stories about a rheumatic elderly rabbit named Uncle Wiggily:

He splashed around and scattered the skilligimink color all over the kitchen, and when his mamma and Susie fished him out, if he wasn’t dyed the most beautiful sky-blue-pink you ever saw!

Sammie and Susie Littletail, by Howard R Garis, 1910. Garis was a famous, and prolific, American children’s writer of the first half of the twentieth century. He invented Uncle Wiggily while working for the Newark News, and over four decades wrote one story a day for the paper. He also authored more than 30 stories about the adventures of Tom Swift under the pen name of Victor Appleton (a “house pseudonym” of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, under which other authors also wrote), and lots more under other names — Laura Lee Hope, Lester Chadwick, Roy Rockwood, Clarence Young — some 500 books in total. Skilligimink is a puzzling word that appears nowhere else; reader Sam Young suggests it might have been a mistake by Garis for the Scots skinnymalink for a thin or skinny person or animal (a skinnymalink tatie is a potato boiled in its own skin).

Sky-blue pink appeared in other authors’ children’s stories in the years that followed. By the 1930s it had crossed the big pond to Britain. Since millions of copies of the Uncle Wiggily stories have been sold, and many of his books are still in print, the expression continues to be introduced to new generations.

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Page created 02 Apr 2005; Last updated 02 Jun 2012