‘rose-coloured spectacles’: meaning and origin (2023)

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“Ad fontes!”

The phrase rose-coloured spectacles, and its variants, denote a happy or positive attitude that fails to notice negative things, leading to a view of life that is not realistic.

The following reflections on metaphorical pink spectacles are from Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Saturday 24th February 1844:

SPECTACLES.

According to the encyclopædias and dictionaries, spectacles consist of two lenses so arranged in frames as to aid defective vision. To this end, and to suit every sort of visual deficiency, great varieties of the article have been invented. There are magnifying glasses and diminishing glasses, and glasses through which objects appear of their actual size. There are spectacles for daylight, spectacles for candle-light, and spectacles tinted with all sorts of hues, from pleasing pink to a sombre slate-colour. […]
It is our purpose in this paper to abandon the literal signification of the word spectacles, and to treat the term abstractedly from the actual article which is seen in the shops, in pedlars’ packs, and on the noses of our elderly friends. We seek to give greater currency to the more enlarged, though metaphorical sense in which the word is used by many authors of high repute, both ancient and modern. Thus, Chaucer saith, that
‘Poverte a spectaccl [sic] is, as thinketh me,
Through which he may his very friends see.’ 1
And Dryden, in commenting on the genius of Shakspeare 2, truly observes, that the great dramatist ‘was naturally learned—he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature.’ 3 Thus, as a man is sometimes said to ‘see’ that which is invisible, such as a fine thought, the point of a joke, or the force of an argument, so would we draw attention not to mechanical, but to psychological spectacles—not to those which aid or derange the actual organs of sight, but to those which assist or falsify the mental vision.
These metaphorical spectacles being worn by a large majority of mankind, are in quite as great variety as the spectacles we have already described, and suit themselves to every age and condition. Ardent and imaginative youth, for example, on first entering active life, wears spectacles which exhibit everything in the brightest colours. Its keen sense of enjoyment, which makes it feel the mere act of existence to be a pleasure, extracts gratification out of whatever is presented to the senses. Painful feelings, when excited in the young, are transient, and serve rather to heighten the effect of general enjoyment than to lessen it. Worldly experience has yet to darken the glowing picture—to give more truthful, and, alas! less favourable views of mankind, but, on the other hand, to exchange for restless and fevered, more permanent and assured sources of happiness. Hence, to the glowing imagination of such natures it is always summer; and they do not, as in after-life, enjoy the coming of the spring, because they know no winter. To them all men appear good, all nature seems beautiful. Such temperaments see everything coleur [sic] de rose—they wear pink spectacles.
These spectacles are by far the most dangerous to the real as well as to the mental perception. ‘The habitual use of tinted spectacles,’ remarks an experienced optician, ‘gives rise to a succession of violent changes of colour, which are painful to the unpractised, and must be injurious to those who have become inured to them.’ This is exactly the case with the false medium through which the world is often seen by youthful enthusiasm. Many a young man, viewing mankind in too glowing a light, has had some act of human frailty (by which, perhaps, he is made to suffer) unexpectedly revealed to him—has had the pink spectacles suddenly dashed from his vision! Then, in proportion as all was before unduly brilliant and beautiful, all appears now as falsely dark. He is what is called a ‘disappointed man.’ His imagination, which at first exaggerated the goodness of mankind, now exaggerates its wickedness. The darkened spectacles which are substituted as much incapacitate him from enjoying the brightness of the sun, as those he previously wore increased it; and he who before saw universal goodness, ceases to believe in benevolence; and the character of every human being appears to be shaded with self-interest or other faultiness. By constantly regarding the shadows of the picture, and those only, he grows old in his fatal uncharitableness, and is reduced to the unamiable condition of a cynic—a Diogenes; but a Diogenes who looks for honest men—not with a lamp, but with a dark lantern—for his vision is obscured with ‘clouded’ spectacles.

1 This is a quotation from The Wife of Bath’s Tale, by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1342-1400):

Poverte a spectacle is, as thynketh me,
Thurgh which he may hise verray freendes see.
in contemporary English:
Poverty is an eye-glass, as it seems to me,
Through which one may see his true friends.

2 Shakspeare is one of the spellings of the Swan of Avon’s surname that have existed in the course of time.

3 This is a quotation from Of Dramatick Poesie, an Essay (London: Printed for Henry Herringman, 1668), by the English poet, playwright and critic John Dryden (1631-1700):

To begin then with Shakespeare; he was the man who of all Modern, and perhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the Images of Nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily: when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learn’d; he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he look’d inwards, and found her there.

The following are, in chronological order, some of the early occurrences of the phrase rose-coloured spectacles and variants that I have found:

1-: From A Gossip about Arts and Artists, published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (London, England) of June 1830:

We have lost some of our enthusiasm, it is true. We don’t go now in rose-coloured spectacles to exhibitions; but we haven’t forgot when we did so.

2-: From Slight Reminiscences of the Rhine, Switzerland, and a Corner of Italy (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman; and John Rodwell – 1834), by the British travel writer Mary Boddington (née Comerford – 1776-1840):

O the joy of blossoming life! What a delicious thing it is to be young, and to see every thing through rose-coloured glasses! but with the wish to be pleased, and a certain sunniness of mind (more in our own power than we imagine), we may look through them a long time.

3-: From The Blackburn Standard (Blackburn, Lancashire, England) of Wednesday 9th March 1836:

From Lisbon we have no novelty. The dreary monotony of bankruptcy and disorder is only varied by an absurd squabble between the Cortes and the Queen respecting the appointment of her Majesty’s expected husband to the Command in Chief of the army, and the miserable intrigues of the Palmella and Carvalho faction to supplant the present Ministry. We thought the old flies were too well gorged to be so soon re-appetised. How Lord Palmerston can extract material from all the accounts which have been received from Portugal for the last six months, for the glowing description he gave the other day of the state and prospects of that country, it is difficult to imagine. It is a happy thing to be able always to walk about the world in rose-coloured spectacles; yet a happiness very similar to that of the idiot inmate of an hospital, who imagines himself an Emperor, surrounded with all the appliances of luxury. Had Psyche been so gifted, she would not have discovered that the dismantled palace of Cupid was shorn of any of its splendours.

4-: From The Liverpool Standard, and General Commercial Advertiser (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 19th August 1836—reprinted from The Morning Post (London, England):

His Majesty’s ministers either have, or affect to have, notions respecting public opinion for which there seems to be no more foundation than there is for any dream of any bedlamite. This hallucination is so agreeable to themselves that we should be sorry to disturb it, were it not likely to be detrimental to the country. They have a notion that their policy is approved of by the people at large, and that they who oppose them displease the people by so doing. We know not what has given rise to this extravagant fancy—every public event appears to demonstrate exactly the opposite. When elections take place they are decided in favour of conservatives; when bills which the ministers have framed, and laboured with an infinite quantity of small perseverance, are cast out in the Lords, because of their unconstitutional tendency, we hear no popular murmurs; but still Messieurs the ministers affect to be persuaded that the people are with them, and against those who are not with them. We should like to know through what magic spectacles it is that ministers look at public proceedings. It cannot be either the green spectacles of former days, or those of azure, to which the philosophy of modern opticians is more favourable. The ministerial spectacles are couleur de rose, and with these they contemplate their own acts and deeds, and the public opinion of them; but it is rather exigeant on their part to expect that others, who are not thus provided, shall regard their ugly jobs, and assaults upon established property and privileges, as though they were of roseate hue and celestial virtue. We are desirous to treat ministers with all possible courtesy, but we cannot do this, nor can the public.
In truth, we do not know any society of a dozen noble lords and honourable gentlemen who possess a smaller share of public sympathy and regard than those who compose his Majesty’s present cabinet. If they could but throw away their flattering spectacles, and look at the real state of the public mind in this country, they would find it divided into two great parties, of which one is hostile to the administration, as the half-conscious dupes of political knaves, who desire to destroy the British constitution; and the other despises the administration that it does not oppose, because, either from folly or dishonesty, that administration shrinks from upholding the ultra principles to which the acts of its policy gradually tend. Between these two parties there are a few who call themselves ministerialists and admirers of liberal policy, but opposed to radicalism. These are as weak in intellect as they are few in number. The old whiggery is gone from all manly minds. The constitutional whigs now rank among the conservatives, the democratic whigs among the radicals—the men who want “organic change;” or, as the same party is called in a neighbouring country, “the men of the movement.” It is ridiculous, then, for the ministers to suppose that they have the country with them. The country is either against them, or in advance of them, upon the democratic road. The English Juste Milieu is not only contemptible, but the object of contempt. The English ministry is a thing merely endured by the two parties of the people, and approved by neither. This is its honourable position, and yet it takes airs upon itself! Behold the effects of rose-coloured spectacles!

5-: From Love (London: Henry Colburn, 1837), by the British novelist Charlotte Bury (née Campbell – 1775-1861):

One night, walking home late from a club, where Lord Herbert had drank sufficient wine to render him confused and irritable, Sir Charles Lennard said to him,
“So, Herbert, at last you are jealous—and of your own wife, too!”
The latter started, tried to laugh, and said—“No.”
“Well then, Herbert, either you are the most indulgent of fashionable husbands, and have worn the rose-coloured spectacles of matrimony more gracefully than your compeers, or you are more comfortably blind than even they usually are, proverbial as their blindness is. What, you have not found out that Claude de Montmorency is in love with Lady Herbert?”

6-: From Our Neighbourhood (London: Houlston and Co., 1839), by the British author Lucy Lyttelton Cameron (née Butt – 1781-1858):

I thought she was not quite disposed to do justice to her younger son, while she saw all her eldest son’s conduct through rose-coloured spectacles.

7-: From The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana, USA) of Wednesday 2nd September 1840:

How to Improve Sight.—An excellent way to make all things look bright and beautiful would be, to wear gold spectacles with rose colored glasses. A worthy old lady in a cap gave us this suggestion, and we told her we’d print it.

The phrase rose-coloured spectacles is used in a ‘neutral’ sense, in contrast to blue-coloured spectacles, in the following from Man, in his Relations to Society (London: William S. Orr and Co., 1840), by the British author Robert Mudie (1777-1842):

Though virtue or goodness is merely a quality, and a quality of which we judge by immediate feeling, and not by any process of reasoning, yet the very same action cannot be both virtuous and vicious at the same time, from the mere circumstance of its being thus sympathized with by two men of different characters. Virtue, whatever it may be in itself, cannot at the same time be its own opposite, neither can any quality be changed by two men thinking differently of it. There is a little satirical caricature, in allusion to some scientific dispute, executed by De la Beche, which is no bad illustration here. It represents two “learned Thebans,” who have gone out in quest of the productions of nature, each with a fowling-piece in his hands, and the one with rose-coloured spectacles and the other with blue. They have come to a tangled and marshy place, overshadowed by trees, upon one of which sits an owl, in an attitude of composure worthy of the chosen bird of Minerva, and with an eye bent upon each of the rival naturalists. “What a beautiful rose-coloured bird,” says the one; “Rose-coloured!” rejoins the other, “why, my dear sir, the bird is as blue as indigo;” and if the sympathy of mankind were the only standard of virtue, we should have the same action as variously defined as the owl is by the two spectacled connoisseurs. There is this much further in the caricature, which is quite apt to the case in hand. It is the spectacles only that occasion the differences perceived by the two naturalists; for if they had seen with their own eyes, they would have both remarked that the bird had the same tawny and mottled plumage which every one who has seen an owl knows that it exhibits, without the slightest tinge either of rose-colour or indigo blue. Just in the same manner, an action may appear in the cerulean blue of virtue to the sympathy of one man, and in the blush of vice to that of another; while to the moral feeling of both it would appear the same, and very different from what it did to the sympathy of either.

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