– noun: a colour intermediate between red and white
– adjective: of the colour pink
The original sense of the noun pink, which is first recorded in 1566, is: any of various Old World plants of the caryophyllaceous genus Dianthus, such as Dianthus plumarius (garden pink), cultivated for their fragrant flowers. The colour adjective dates back to 1607 and the colour noun is attested around 1669.
The noun pink denoting the plant is of uncertain origin. It is perhaps connected with:
– the obsolete verb to pink, recorded around 1544 and meaning, of the eyes, to become small and narrow, to peer, to blink, and, of a person or animal, to peer with half-closed eyes, to blink, to wink,
– and to the archaic adjective pink, attested in 1575 and meaning, of an eye, small, half-shut or winking.
This adjective, rare except in pink eye, meaning small or half-shut eye, is probably from the verb, which was frequently used in to wink and pink and variants and is in turn probably from the early modern Dutch verb pincken, also pinken, of same meanings.
The adjective pink-eyed, meaning having small, narrow or half-shut eyes, is attested as early as 1519, which would seem to imply earlier currency of the verb and of the adjective pink. It can perhaps be compared to the early modern Dutch pinck-ooghen, meaning to blink (Dutch oog means eye).
It is therefore possible that pink in the sense of the flower was originally short for pink eye, perhaps by analogy with Middle French œillet, diminutive of œil: this French diminutive means, literally, small eye (a sense now obsolete) and by transferred use carnation (the distinction between pinks and carnations was often not entirely clear) — incidentally, it is the origin of English eyelet.
According to another theory, the noun pink is from another verb to pink, which dates from the late 15th century, is perhaps a nasalised variant of to pick and means to cut, pierce, in which case the flower would have been so called on account of the jagged shape of its petals, as was dandelion.
The expression the pink of, meaning the best degree or condition and the model or embodiment of a particular quality, is comparable to the flower of (in French, la fleur de), denoting the finest individuals out of a number of people or things. It was first used by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, first published in 1597:
(Folio 1, 1623)
– Mercutio. Signior Romeo, Bon iour, there’s a French salutation to your
French slop: you gaue vs the the counterfait fairely last
– Romeo. Good morrow to you both, what counterfeit
did I giue you?
– Mercutio. The slip sir, the slip, can you not conceiue?
– Romeo. Pardon Mercutio, my businesse was great, and in
such a case as mine, a man may straine curtesie.
– Mercutio. That’s as much as to say, such a case as yours con-
strains a man to bow in the hams.
– Romeo. Meaning to cursie.
– Mercutio. Thou hast most kindly hit it.
– Romeo. A most curteous exposition.
– Mercutio. Nay, I am the very pinck of curtesie.
– Romeo. Pinke for flower.
– Mercutio. Right.
– Romeo. Why then is my Pump well flowr’d.
(This dialogue is based on sexual double entendres. When Mercutio says “such a case as yours constrains a man to bow in the hams [= the thighs]”, he implies that Romeo’s business was sexual. “Thou hast most kindly hit it” means enjoyed both joke and lady, and “pinke for flower” alludes to the female genitals. Romeo then continues to pun; he says in effect: if “pinke [is] for flower”, “then is my Pump well flowr’d”, pump meaning shoe (it is said that it was the custom to wear ribbons formed into the shape of flowers on the shoes) and penis.)
The figurative sense the best degree or condition of pink gave rise to the expression in the pink, meaning in excellent health or spirits. Its earliest known user was the English writer Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923):
‘Oh, hallo!’ I said. ‘Going strong?’
‘I am in excellent health, I thank you. And you?’
‘In the pink. Just been over to America.’