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Bottle of Green InkI heard this phrase whilst listening to Feedback on BBC Radio 4, and I don’t think I’ve heard it before. On the programme it was used, not that unkindly, to refer to irate complainants who write into the BBC to express their dissatisfaction with some aspect of programming or management. A bit of digging finds this definition: a collective term for people who write abusive or threatening letters to people in the public eye, from the idea that only the eccentric would write in green ink! In 1998, the newly appointed Readers’ Editor of the Guardian, Ian Mayes, wrote: ‘Even before I began I had numerous warnings from colleagues to ‘beware of the green-ink brigade’, conjuring the spectre of obsessive correspondents who would write at great length and persistently, typically covering their copious sheets in longhand scrawled in green ink’. ‘The ‘green ink brigade’ is apparently used in news rooms as a euphemism which saves one from talking about the lunatic fringe, and the use of a green ink pen is also said to be the implement of choice of conspiracy theorists and cranks.

An early example comes from a 1985 article, again from the Guardian, in which Ian Aitkin describes the uproar over a House of Commons debate on fluoridation, and says ‘Our elected legislature was taken over lock, stock and barrel by the green ink brigade’, and he goes on to explain the expression as 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’. Reading all this, and not myself having ever seen a letter written in green ink, I wonder whether the prevalence of a green ink brigade is a little exaggerated.



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