When looking up the word incarnadine in Merriam Webster I found some truly discomforting writing. After a brief definition of the word (“having the pinkish color of flesh” or “blood red”), there appears a drop-down box with an editor’s note. “Carn- is the Latin root for ‘flesh,’ and incarnates is Latin for ‘flesh-colored,’ ” the entry begins, under the rather perky headline DID YOU KNOW? Okay, so far so good. But then, following a quick timeline of the word in question (incarnadine dates back to the late 1500s), the unnamed editor tells us this: “Since then, the adjective has come to refer to the dark-red color of freshly cut, fleshy meat as well as to the pinkish color of the outer skin of some humans.”
I read that passage and felt a record scratch reverberate through my skull. It reads as though an AI wrote this passage, but only after being feed a steady diet of Thomas Harris. This is not how people talk about bodies or color. This is how cannibalistic robots think about humans—pink, fleshy, freshly cut, bodies in parts.
Incarnadine is a beautiful color, a deep rich red that sits somewhere between the Falu red of cottages and barns and raspberry. It is less orangey than brick, darker than cherry, lighter than wine. It’s made no less lovely by the fact that it’s eerily familiar. As usual, Merriam Webster is correct: incarnadine is the color of tongues, steak, and drying (but not yet dried) blood. It’s the color of George Bellows’s red-faced boxers and Berlinde de Bruyckere’s abstract “wounds.” Francis Bacon’s disturbing masterpiece Figure with Meat could have been titled A Study of Incarnadine (and the same could be said for the image that inspired it, Veláquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X). When put in this context, incarnadine is rather repellant. And yet, it’s beautiful when painted on a bedroom wall, as shown by the high-end paint company Farrow and Ball. In large, generous swaths, incarnadine can be stunning and regal. It’s significantly uglier when seen in bits and pieces—like many murky hues, it looks best when flattened and standing on its own.
Few have wielded the word with as much skill as Shakespeare. Toward the end of Macbeth, his paranoid antihero stands alone on the stage and wonders aloud:
Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s oceans wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
the multitudinous seas incarnadine
Making the green one red.
His guilt is so great that no water could wash it away. Were he to try, he’d only create a crimson wave. It’s an arresting image, but I’m more impressed by the construction of the line. The iambs slink up and down those polysyllabic words like beads on a thread.
Incarnadine would have been a relatively new word at the time Shakespeare was writing. He employs it as a verb (to make red), a usage that he may have pioneered and remains active to this day. (Centuries later, the poet Mary Szybist similarly employed this pretty red word, titling her 2013 National Book Award winning collection Incarnadine. Like Shakespeare, Szybist recognized the rhythm of the letters and the potent symbolism of reddening. To make a body red is to make it bloody, make it blush, make it aroused—it marks a change of state, a heightening, tightening, and opening of flesh.) The rise of the word incarnadine coincides with the rise of pink as a concept—before the sixteenth century, Europeans generally saw pink tones as simply a lighter variety of red. As trade increased with warmer climates and brazilwood became more plentiful (thus making pink-dyed gowns and doublets a more common sight at court), people began to distinguish between the two color families. For several centuries, incarnadine bridged that gap; sometimes the noun was used to refer to a washed-out red or even peach, but just as often incarnadine was used to describe a richer, deeper hue. But whether it was used to describe the pale pink of a healthy nail bed or the dark brown of a dried scab, incarnadine remained a color that pointed toward the human body, that source of continual mystery, fascination, and speculation.
Early doctors put much stock in the colors of the human body, and their interest wasn’t skin deep. For thousands of years, many Europeans believed that the human body and mind were influenced by four essential and naturally occurring liquids, known as the humors. This soupy group of bodily byproducts included yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. Each humor was produced in a different part of the body, and each one was linked to a season, an element, a temperament, and a stage of life. They were also associated with colors—yellow, black, white (or clear), and red.
While no one knows exactly how these early physicians chose these four substances to form the basis of their medical system, some historians believe that the four humors were inspired by the four hues found in separated blood. When you leave a vial of blood to rest out in open air, it begins to form a series of distinct layers—a dark blackish clot forms at the bottom, followed by a thin layer of red cells, then a pale green or whitish layer, with a clear yellow serum floating on the top. Perhaps Greek philosophers noticed how this vital fluid (seemingly a contiguous whole, like the human body itself) could be broken down into several components and extrapolated the concept from there. The red liquid was linked with the most positive traits, which is fitting since red was a highly prized color among the ancient Greeks. People who had sanguine dispositions (i.e., they possessed more blood than bile or phlegm) were cheerful, optimistic, sociable, and youthful. These four character tropes cropped up in the arts as well as the sciences: Shakespeare threw them into his plays and Albrecht Dürer hid them in the background of one of his etchings. Contemporary artists have played with the idea of the four humors, too. The “neo-fabulist” painter Thomas Woodruff created a series of temperament-inspired pieces, including the incarnadine-heavy and symbolism-rich Landscape Variation, Sanguinic (2010–2011).
Although we no longer subscribe to that medicinal system, we still tend to think of bloodred as a healthy color. A reddened complexion could be a sign of alcohol abuse or an aversion to sunscreen, but a ruddy-faced person is typically understood to have high spirits and athletic interests, not gin blossoms and age spots. Practically speaking, you can be red in the face from anger, embarrassment, exertion, or sexual activity. Or you could just be wearing make-up to mimic the look. Thanks to a long-held association between fleshy red tones and libidinous encounters, there are few places where we see more incarnadine than in the cosmetics industry.
In interior design and textile manufacturing, rich red cycles in and out of fashion. Some years, we see Marsala velvet sofas and incarnadine walls. Other years, we’re all about millennial pink and Navajo white. Much to my delight, red seems to be on the rise right now. Following years of pastel dominance, we’re starting to see a preference for vivid crimsons and shocking purples among the fashionable set—one need look no further than Janelle Monáe’s devastatingly good Christian Siriano Oscar outfit or Dua Lipa’s music video for “IDGAF” (which features both brilliant red and ultraviolet pant suits) to see how fresh the color can seem in the right hands.
But unlike those timely and tailored red jackets, incarnadine lips are considered a classic. Chanel’s beloved deep-red nail polish, Vamp, is one of the most iconic shades of the nineties, and it still looks fresh today. Unlike interior designers, who can be a little wary of putting the fleshy associations of red front and center, make-up companies have no such qualms. Sure, there are plenty of lipsticks with names like Ruby Woo or Cherries in the Snow, but there are just as many called Bloodroses or Bad Blood.
While the phrase ruby-red lips has a slightly more pleasant cast to it than bloodred lips, both are clichés and both phrases seem equally likely to wind up somewhere in the bridge of a Taylor Swift track (depending on which persona—femme fatale or gutsy good girl—she’s inhabiting at the time). Both also serve to single out a pair of lips as an object worth desiring, either by comparing them to precious stones or by highlighting the carnal nature of the human mouth. (Carnal, of course, comes from the same Latin root as incarnadine.) It’s been widely theorized that red lipstick is appealing to heterosexual men because it creates a facial allegory for those other lips, supposedly made red and engorged by ovulation. The famed sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson helped advance this concept, but while multiple studies have shown that men find women dressed in red or photographed against a red backdrop slightly more attractive, there is no reason to believe that straight men prefer cherry-red genitals. In fact, some studies have shown a slight bias against artificially reddened vulva. But that hasn’t stopped Nars from giving their matte incarnadine lipstick the highly suggestive color name Fire Down Below. Though I find that name a bit off-putting, it’s still not as bad as Kat Von D’s yikes-inducing Underage Red. I’m under no delusions that Kat Von D will listen to me—she’s defended her tastelessly titled cosmetics before—but wouldn’t it be nice if she’d scrap the Lolita references for something more classic? Incarnadine has the same number of syllables, yet not a single product on Sephora has it on the label. Thanks to Shakespeare’s groundbreaking verbing, one could even say, I must incarnadine my lips, and it would be grammatically correct. Really, is there anything more arousing than that?
Whether you find incarnadine stimulating or repulsive, there’s something compelling about a flesh color that has nothing to do with skin color. The world is full of inaccurately labeled beige items that boast “nude” or “flesh tone.” When I discovered incarnadine, I felt a slight thrill. Finally, a human color that is less focused on melatonin and more accurately describes what lies beneath. Gruesome as it may be, incarnadine is, like puce, a universal hue. It’s sexy, it’s meaty, it’s gross, and it’s poetic, all at once. It reminds me of Byron Kim’s portrait of his son. Emmett at Twelve Months, #3, is made from a series of small panels, each painted a different color. The colors Kim found on his child’s body range from light mauve to steely gray to inky black. There are dark panels and light panels and peach panels and white ones. Like this complex portrait of a person, incarnadine is a color that shifts when you look at it closely. Centuries ago, that word was understood to mean pinkish or the “outer skin of some humans.” But over the years, incarnadine has deepened and darkened. Now, it’s the color of blood, our shared liquid, the hue of our shared humanity.
Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in the woods of rural New England. She is the author of Handcrafted Maine.