Metaphor Red Ink Education Finance

Spilled Red Ink

An exploration of the modern metaphor.

Apr 18, 2024 10 mins

Spilled Red Ink

Millennia ago, ancient Egyptian priests would use red ink in magical incantations and rituals. Halfway around the world, mercury-colored (cinnabar) red ink was so equated with wealth that people ingested mercury in order to become wealthy. Subsequently, red ink became associated with the publishing of the Christian bible, the religious law, and more precisely, the word of Jesus.

While I spent much time researching the above, and being fascinated by every aspect of it, it was the two modern perceptions of red ink which I wanted to write this newsletter about: namely, education and accounting.

Functions of Red Ink

But before we can, we have to understand why red ink has such a long history.

At its most basic, red ink is functional. It has been in existence and in use for millennia, and has been the tool of choice for critics, editors, and copyists alike during the most of that period. It was used to highlight, structure paragraphs, and categorize, making it easier to quickly identify what you are looking for in a sea of text. It was the first color used in Arabic i‘jām, or the dots to inform which letter it is. (If you know Hebrew, think about the dots within the ב,כ,פ,ש,ת.)

Red ink was an antidote against the monotony of the monotonal black ink. Without it, you'd just see large swaths of uninterrupted black text.

You wouldn’t use red ink to compose or to publish whole pieces, you use it to annotate and accentuate. It wasn’t intended to be forever, it was intended for the use of the moment. It indicates data that has been inputted temporarily or changed, but still needs to be fully written. It’s a color that can be used to cross out, without it being confused with being done by the original author, or provide further directions or metadata about the text.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was quicker to produce and easier to transport than certain inexpensive black ink. It has always been accessible. Red ink could be made from anything from valuable minerals to dirt, fruits and vegetables, or flowers.

One may wax philosophical or poetic about red ink, but in fact, it is black (or dark) ink’s functional, legible counterpart. There is nothing mystical about it. It is immediately identifiable as an edit. It is distinctive. 

Paying Attention

It feels more correct to say that red ink manages your attention.

The moment I realized that red ink was about attention, the phrase from Arthur Miller’s “Death of A Salesmen”, “attention must be paid…” ricocheted about my head. I reread the play, and could make a convincing case that Miller consciously made efforts to convey the idiom “drowning in red ink” without needing to say it once.

There are winks and nods abound. Red is both mentioned and shown multiple times throughout the play. Money was explicitly compared to blood at one point. Willy Loman was described as “mercurial”. Mercury was the Roman god of the traveling salesmen. Mercury is associated with the color red. Though, I may just be reading what I want to read. 

Teaching with Red Ink

And that leads us to the modern era, and to one of the most prolific modern users of red ink, the teacher.

Red ink has been used by teachers for centuries, from templating and correcting orthography (the correct way to write letters) to correcting essays. 

Teaching Orthography

The orthographic phenomenon finds its roots in China and Japan, and was even suggested by John Locke in his completely dated and probably harmful theories of education.

A student would use black ink over a perfectly formed red letter, or a teacher would correct an incorrectly written letter with a corrected red line. It was functional and easy.

Student Essays

On the latter phenomenon, the correction of essays, there has been much spilled black ink. It is difficult to ascertain exactly when student essays began being marked up with red ink. It was in latter decades of the 19th century. Red ink wasn’t cheaper, but there was a functional value to its usage.

A teacher in 1912 wrote a 5 page article in “The English Journal” about the use of red ink.

Red ink is to our profession as drugs are to the medical profession. We cannot, or think we cannot, get along without. But these are well-nigh drugless days. The medicine cabinet is smaller than it used to be; the few bottles it still contains are smaller. I do not look to see red-inkless days; yet the time may come, and soon, when shallower ink-bottles will be the mode. I hope such a time will come soon, for this I have noticed: whereas doctors, wisely or unwisely, may administer drops and pills unnumbered without feeling personal discomfort, teachers who administer large quantities of red ink all too frequently grow thin and pale and dim of eye.
— Alfred M. Hitchcock, A Composition on Red Ink

A year later in 1913, another teacher published an article with the alliterative title of “The Reign of Red Ink”.

As accurately as I can judge from a rather brief experience and limited observation, I believe that the children in the grades live, so far as composition work is concerned, in an absolute monarchy, in which they are the subjects, the teacher the king (more often, the queen), and the red-ink pen the royal scepter.
— Walter Barnes, The Reign of Red Ink

Both pieces share a similar pedagogical bent, that, as teachers, ought to not overcorrect, and assign themes that are relevant and interesting to the students, not to ourselves. That writing may be idiomatic in nature and not perfectly grammatical. And that kids will be kids.

Both pieces are also inherently about how we teach composition to students. If their contemporaneous teachers would apply their existing pedagogical rubrics whilst using a purple or green ink, their articles would still stand nearly unchanged.

With the mass production of greater variety of colors of inks, the conversation evolved during the following century, with red ink in the classroom still being demonized.

In 1997, a teacher recorded a small experiment she carried out with a colleague about the actual effects of red ink on students, after the century of anti-red ink rhetoric. Her conclusions were that students remembered and preferred red ink comments to comments in other colors.

[O]ur own construction of the red ink lore has been based, in part, on our own literary training. “Red,” after all, is never “missed” by the literary critic or the English teacher as a significant choice of color by a writer. For us, red means death, blood, war, lust, or danger—because we have been trained to see it as such. How else has a simple ink color so easily conjured so many violent images in our scholarship? 

Blue, too, is quite symbolic—of sadness, water, air, tranquility—yet, we do not give much attention to that. Nor do we give attention to the white paper and black ink our students use, though such colors are as equally traditional for students as red pens are for teachers. 

If we were to supplement our literary interpretations with cognitive interpretations, we would come to understand that red ink does not deserve this attention. It simply grabs our attention: a color as bright and as bold as red, meaningful in literary circles, is simply, in cognitive terms, salient, especially on student papers produced on traditional white paper with black ink. Perhaps our students have not been victimized by the red pen so much as we have been victimized by our lack of understanding of such cognitive principles as “perception” and “human memory.” 

And what about our students? For most of our freshmen, such literary training has not been so deeply ingrained. How can we assume that their reaction to red ink will be as literary as ours and, therefore, as negative? Students in this study suggested the most practical reason for using red: it’s easy to see. And don’t we want them to do just that? See—not “see as we see,” but, simply, “see.” 
— Cindy Johanek, Composing Research (2000)

Red is “easy to see”. There is really nothing more in it to that. She also included ideas related to the earlier articles, which were about providing better feedback.

Accounting in Red (Ink)

Red ink in the accounting world had very similar roots. It was used in order to ensure that things changes were noticed, and to be able to differentiate between different sorts of activities.

Managing Inventory

“Drowning in red ink” was first used a euphemism of too much small activity, not for constant loss. As we can see in an early 1927 example of “drowning in red ink”.

[S]urveys among the wholesale trade reveal a terrible abuse in the way of small orders; nearly two thirds of the individual orders received averaged less than ten dollars per each. Every order entails separate entry, separate packing, separate delivery, separate accounting. No matter what arbitrary charges are imposed to make these orders show a profit there is bound to be a lot of drowning in red ink.

This is talking about a dealer who purchases paper from a number of mills, and then receives orders from printers for half-reams of paper. 

In a 1927 copy on “Principles of Bookkeeping and Accounting”, we find an explanation.

The use of red ink, while still being employed, is being discontinued by many accountants and bookkeepers. Subtractions or deductions, however, are frequently indicated by red ink.

“Red ink” is not used solely to account for money owed or debt, rather, it was for any reduction of merchandise. If you began the day with 10 reams (each at 1000 pages), and made 20 sales for 500 pages a piece, you would be listing every one of those subtractions from inventory in red. In the modern lingo, you’d be ending the day in the “black”, because you had successfully converted all of your inventory to money.

In the indirect journaling method, “no entry should be made in the ledger unless it is first recorded in a book of original entry.” In the less frequent direct method of closing the ledger, a lot more red ink would be used to list each sale, which would then be summed for gross profit in black ink.

More small activity results in more red ink, which is equated to more work, for less profit. That is no way the same thing as bankruptcy or hemorrhaging money.

The Red (Ink) Sea

“Awash” or “Drowning in red ink” is based on spending or taxation or internal governmental matters.

In the 1980s, we see the idiom used in government, with the “sea of red ink”, “wallowing in red ink”, “drowning in red ink”, and the numbers they are using are in the hundreds of billions of dollars of their budget.

Why build a monument for Roosevelt, when we are at a point of financial instability, in the sea of red ink? We’re gasping for air, why spend more?

One particularly memorable line which is literally just being used for color, in some budgetary meeting:

The 18th amendment did not stem the flow of whisky. This amendment would not stem the flow of red ink.

The use of the phrase “awash in red ink” continues this water metaphor, regarding budgetary debts. But as a government, we can exist in a sea of red ink. All spending is red ink.

The metaphor continues. Industries are ships on the sea, and at any moment they are at risk of taking on water. “Clearly absent this decrease in labor expense the rail road industry would have been awash in red ink.”

In a governmental inquiry, we see how Washington is described.

“We live and work in a town up here that is awash in red ink. You cannot get away from red ink in this town. Having said that do you have any idea, and few don’t have, can you provide us with the information as to the cost of this exercise.”

Red (Ink) Blood

Red ink is a reality of life, not death. But this does show a subtle shift, that red ink is lifeblood. You need money to accomplish anything. And in an [institution], money isn’t represented by green, it’s represented by red line items in a ledger.

This is a very still different imagery than the one where one is hemorrhaging or bleeding red ink.

It works in the medical industry as well as Washington.

“And hospitals, as they are bleeding red ink, are not sure that they are going to be able to support or subsidize general public health services of this nature. So I am concerned that what you see here may actually be an underrepresentation of the number of centers that are in jeopardy of closing.“
“One of you said that hospitals are bleeding red ink. Well, welcome to the trauma center here. We are gushing red ink from every pore, up here in Washington.”

But in general, bleeding red ink comes from violence and economic war. You can drown all by yourself, but a third party is logically required to make you bleed.

But bleeding red ink takes on a new meaning, it get extended to international competition, and gets used when describing new tariffs or taxes. It gets used often with “hemorrhaging jobs”.

“…bleeding red ink from wounds inflicted during the repeated thrashings it took from Japanese competitors.”

Understanding Idiomatic Metaphors

This tracks with research published in the Atlantis, from 2000 about the most common conceptual metaphors used in business English. Using the the New York Times between 1970 and 1990 as source material, the researcher discovered that were “business is a fight / war”, was used in 13.5% of all business headlines. “Businesses are journeys” was the operative metaphor for 12.5% of headlines. The third most used metaphor was “Business is a living organism” with 7% of researched headlines.

The metaphor with which you see business will change the idiom you will will use.“Drowning in red ink” connotes a living organism struggling to breathe, “awash with red ink” is a ship taking on water in a journey metaphor, while, “bleeding red ink” is one caused by an act of violence.

A 2015 study called “Them's Fightin' Words: The Effects of Violent Rhetoric on Ethical Decision Making in Business”, reveals negative repercussions when violent and military metaphor is used in business settings, resulting in non-ethical decision-making.

Marshall McLuhan was wrong

Red ink is, at worst, neutral. When you see words in red, you know that there is more information to be known. In both the cases of reviewing student essays and basic accounting, the red ink is providing a helpful function, without which, the student or another accountant / auditor would miss something important.

Associating the red ink with an automatic red flag, while it feels right, because they are both the same color, makes a fallicious connection. Blaming the color of ink for the tenor of comments or for financial decisions creates a generalization when in reality, each case is unique. It shifts the conversation from solving the problem to questioning the medium of the messenger.

This is a case where Marshall McLuhan's famous adage of "the medium is the message" is wrong. Red ink is used in these cases, because it is the best color for the job. To paraphrase Shakespeare, an ink by any other color, would convey the same meaning, but has a higher probability of causing an mistake.


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