One of the most counterintuitive expressions I’ve come across is “essere al verde”, or “being at green”. If you aren’t familiar with it, any guesses as to what this could mean? What if I were to tell you that it has something to do with money? You might think it refers to the “greenback” or American dollar, or cash in general. You would certainly be forgiven (or not!) for thinking that it means you have lots of money (since you are ‘in’ the green). We also generally use the colour green to indicate a financial credit as opposed to red, which indicates debits. So if your bank balance is in credit, you would expect to see it in black or green, whereas if it was red (or indeed any other colour!), you might take a look to see what was up.
In fact, however, the meaning of this curious phrase is the precise opposite of what we might expect. “Essere al verde” basically means that you’re broke, or run out of money, or in dire financial straits. The origin of this expression is lost in the mists of time and there are several theories–you can read about them all in Italian Wikipedia.
My favourite is the one about the Italian flag in battle. As we know, the flag is composed of three vertical stripes–first green, then white, then red. Normally, the flag pole would be placed into the corner of the green stripe, so that the outermost would be the red part. In the course of battle, heavy enemy gunfire would inevitably begin tearing away at the flag, eventually leaving a tattered bit of green. Therefore, if the tricolour is “in the green”, chances are that you have made some pretty heavy losses. An interesting theory.
Another, slightly more fun theory, is one that originates in Emilia-Romagna. If you think about how you might eat a whole slice of watermelon (without slicing up the fruit), you would begin chewing away at the red fruit until you eventually arrive at the thick skin, i.e. the ‘green’ part. So if you have arrived ‘at the green’, then you have no more fruit left and might even start scraping the skin for the last few bits of juicy fruit still clinging to it! Just like how you might with a waning bank balance…
Yet another possibility is that the expression refers to the inner lining of a men’s wallet. Typically this would have been green in the past, so if you were to creak open your wallet and immediately see the green part then this would mean you had no more cash left in it.
Fun theories aside, time for a word of warning…in spite of this expression, Italians do not use ‘green’ to mean a negative bank balance, debt, etc. There is a world of difference between a person ‘being at green’, and your bank account being ‘in green’. If your conto (account) is ‘nel verde’, this means that you have a credit balance! However, if you are ‘al verde’, then this means that you’re broke. Makes no sense, right? 🙂