It is an uncomfortable feeling for an editor to discover that they have used a word for decades believing that they understood its meaning, only to discover that isn’t the case at all. I expect that you, too, think that you know the meaning of the word I have in mind. But since it was first coined, the word livid, from Latin, lividus, has undergone extraordinary transformations, gaining different connotations over centuries.
Although it may be flexible enough in modern usage for its sense to be clear in context, when we look to specific epithets in Natural Latin, it is not unreasonable to demand precision and consistency in meaning and intent. For therein lie clues as to the nature of the species in question.
The Linnean ideal of the binomial is, after all, conciseness and accuracy.
With colour epithets, there is some leeway, I suppose, to accommodate human differences in colour perception. One might confidently expect a species bearing the epithet violaceus, to show at least some hint of violet. With the Violet Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa violacea, seeing the wings shimmering in shades of violet caused me to exclaim ‘Oh, so that’s why!’
Above: Carpenter bee Xylocopa violacea. By Luc hoogenstein – CC BY-SA 4.0
The same with the Violet Oil Beetle, Meloe violaceus, whose whole body glistens in tints of deep violet blue. In the case of the European Green Lizard, Lacerta viridis – well, that’s a triumph! Its gleaming viridian skin is the very essence of green.
Above: Lacerta viridis. By Uoaei1 – CC BY-SA 4.0
While it is true that not all of the three hundred colour epithets in my lexicon can be so clearly related to their corresponding terms in modern English, lividus is so ambiguous that its use as a scientific descriptor surely ought to be regarded as limited. Its colour meanings are contradictory. It may well be unique among the colour terms in its lack of specificity. What’s odd about that is how frequently it has been used across all orders and families. I often cannot decipher what the taxonomists’ intentions were when they chose the term for a given species. In parallel with that, its journey into modern usage has embodied conflicting meanings all the way.
The word has a colourful history that was first brought to my attention when reflecting on the meaning of the name of the Alder Bolete, Gyrodon lividus … of which more anon.
Lividus, as described by H.A. Dade in Colour Terminology in Biology 1: – livid; this term is difficult to define; it originally meant ‘black and blue’ as well as pale and wan, or a blackish violet or purple, or merely dusky … roughly it may defined as the peculiar livery effect of adding grey and black to a range of hues between blue and red …
The mycologist, Pier Andrea Saccardo 2, suggests that it is a combination of his colour numbers 13 and 14, purpureus (purple) and ruber (red). In addition, he describes it in German as Blaubraun (blue-brown), adding further to my confusion with his comparison of the colour to the multi-coloured tail of the peacock (pavoninus).
Above: Pier Andrea Saccardo, table II, from Chromotaxia, Edition of 1894. Lividus is the penultimate colour swatch. Saccardo’s intention in publishing his Chromataxia was the standardisation of colour epithets in scientific nomenclature.
Despite Dade’s complaint about the descriptive imprecision of lividus, the term has been used as a scientific Latin epithet for no fewer than 450 species of living things, even in species as recently described as the newly discovered asclepiad, Oxypetalum lividum, Farinaccio, in 2013.
This list includes Cyriopagopus lividus, a burrow-dwelling tarantula native to Myanmar and Thailand, which goes by the colloquial name of Cobalt Blue tarantula. People who keep them as pets praise the beauty of their iridescent blue colour.
Above: Cyriopagopus lividus, Cobalt Blue Tarantula. Mating pair By Flamesbane – CC BY-SA 3.0
The colours of Paracentrotus lividus, the Purple Sea Urchin, seem to encompass a range of liverish shades, so I suppose the epithet appropriate here. This is the edible sea urchin – edible, that is, if you regard salty and chewy gonads as a food source (not to mention that it flourishes near sewage outlets). They have been considered a delicacy since pre-historic times.
Above: Paracentrotus lividus, Purple Sea Urchin. By Frédéric Ducarme – CC BY-SA 4.0
The sedge, Carex livida, which occurs across much of Eurasia and northern North America, covers the bases with its common names of Livid Sedge and Pale Sedge – they highlight either the word’s double meaning, or the confusion of the colloquial namers; the leaves are pale, they’re also a leaden blue-grey. The Mourning Widow or Dusky Crane’s-bill, Geranium phaeum, has a pale and wan variety that’s called the Leaden Dusky Cranesbill – Geranium phaeum var. lividum.
Above: Geranium phaeum var lividum. By Robert Flogaus-Faust – CC BY 4.0
And in the multiple common names of the fungus Entoloma sinuatum (syn. E. lividum) one gets the sense of mycologists grasping for a clearer description of its colouration: the Livid Entoloma, Livid Pinkgill, Leaden Entoloma, and Lead Poisoner – suggestions of pink, purple, and leaden blue-grey in the melange. Is it the gills that are livid, do we think?
Above: Entoloma sinuatum. By Gerhard Koller – This image is Image Number 40542 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0
Amphipyra livida, Black Moth, Tiefschwarze Glanzeule, Noctuelle Livide, is a moth of woods and meadows, where its larvae feed on hawkweeds, dandelions and meadow rue, which only shows its bruised colours when it reveals its underwings.
Above: Amphipyra livida. By Dumi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
It’s my opinion that the flower of the orchid, Prosthechea livida, actually does resemble the splendid spectrum of a healing bruise.
Above: Prosthechea livida. By Orchi – CC BY-SA 3.0
I guess I have to be satisfied that the scientific epithet is usually suggestive of the multiple colours of bruises. Perhaps I have also come to comprehend that the common understanding of livid in English is equally flexible.
Which brings me to dictionary definitions of livid:
The root word is the Latin adjective, lividus, and my Latin Dictionary gives several alternative meanings.
līvidus (feminine līvida, neuter līvidum). Firstly, a colour – leaden, bluish, blue. It becomes black-and-blue, when referring to bruising caused by a beating. And it was given a range of figurative meanings quite early in its career, as poets are wont to do; Ovid, Cicero and Horace used it to mean envious, invidious, spiteful, malicious.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary 3 is discursive, expanding the colour range from black-and-blue and reddish, to include ashen and pallid, these two last pale and wan are rather deathly extensions – they’re often used to suggest a corpse-like pallor. The sense of being pale with anger seems to derive from this colour meaning (although true to contradictory form, one can quite as easily be red in the face with fury). And although it may be the most common usage now, livid with rage doesn’t seem to have come into colloquial English usage until the early 20th century.
This dance around corpse colours takes us into another dimension of livid – one that is familiar to fans of forensic detection and murders most horrid. That is, post-mortem lividity, livor mortis, the purplish red discolouration of the skin as blood settles in the lowest portions of the body after death. Since I assume, dear reader, that you may be of a nervous and delicate disposition, I’ve googled the images so you don’t have to. All the imaginable colours of a bruise are there.
Which brings me back to the Alder Bolete, Gyrodon lividus. Its description reads like an ode to subtle colour and texture, and is expressed in my desired precision. I adore these colour terms – so evocative.
Its specific epithet though – still an enigma.
The cap is creamy, pale ochraceous (ochraceus), pale buff to buff (bubalinus), pale yellowish brown, pale cinnamon (cinnamomeus), sometimes almost grey (griseus), often with reddish tints, sometimes rusty spotted, viscid when wet, smooth or felty, sometimes scaly when dry. The flesh is cream (cremeus) in the cap, yellowish to orange-yellow (aurantiacus) in the stipe, usually brownish (brunneolus) in the stipe base, blueing in the cap and unchanging in the stipe when exposed to air. Tubes very short, yellow to bright yellow when young, later with some olivaceous (olivaceus) tint, blueing when exposed to air. Pores yellow (flavus) to bright yellow (luteus) when young, later with some olivaceous tint.
So far no hints of lividity – then, then, then … the punchline, blueing when bruised. So there you have it – and that is, indeed, the identifying feature that provided its name.
Above: Gyrodon lividus. By Holger Krisp – Own work, CC BY 3.0
1. Dade, H.A., Colour Terminology in Biology, Mycological Paper No 6, The Commonwealth Mycological Institute, Kew, Surrey, 1943.
2. Saccardo, Pier Andrea, Chromotaxia: seu, Nomenclator colorum polyglottus additis speciminibus coloratis ad usum botanicorum et zoologorum, Patavii, Typis Seminarii, 1891.
3. Livid: Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/livid. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021.
Post Script: the header image here is the Colour Circle of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Farbenkreis zur Symbolisierung des menschlichen Geistes – und Seelenlebens, 1809. PD. A dissertation on the emotional symbolism of colour.