Wednesday, February 28, 1996


Last Friday, when the Daily Telegraph took to crying out against the wearing of white peace ribbons by Westminster MPs, even those who disagreed that the historical origins off "ribbonism" made the gesture hostile to unionists, might have to concede that the word "ribbon" had appeared in print and on the lips of the concerned public just once too often in 1990s.

In all the current fuss, if would indeed be a shame to forget those fashion setting early adopters of the word, the Dublin artisan members of the Ribbon Society, a 19th century Catholic organisation, which offered a kind of counterpart to the Orange order, providing its members with all the social benefits of lodge life as well as opportunities for "symbolic transvestitism"

Ribbon, it has to be admitted, a good word for all such attempts at making visible dispersed communities, for a ribbon is always a fragment of some whole, a cutting from a continuum, one are snatched from a long, long loop.

What the Telegraph forgot to mention was that the English word "ribbon" is rooted in the Irish, ribbon, itself derived from the word for a flake, or a hair. At least that is, according to the pioneering etymologist, Walter W. Skeat. By the time the word reached the latest edition of the OED, in contrast, the word's Gaelic roots had apparently been lost.

Although the adjective currently most associated with the word "ribbon" is red, for a long time blue was easily the most popular colour. This trend swept over everything from luxury ocean liners, to a series of "Blue Ribbon" paintings from Soho graffiti artist, Jean Michel Basquiat.

By coincidence, it was the milieu in which Basquiat once moved, the New York art world, that inspired the re popularisation of the word "ribbon". The red ribbons of Visual AIDS, a group of American activist artists, first showed up in public at the 1991 Tony Awards in New York.

But while this trend has been spreading around the world ever since, it is in the United States that the word "ribbon" still maintains its greatest potency. No event, it seems, is permitted to pass without the unfurling of a ribbon.

After the Oklahoma bombing, ribbon donors rushed to the site of the devastation. Luckily, a reporter for Reuters was on a hand to decode the scene. "Blue ribbons represent all the victims the colour was taken from the Oklahoma state flag. Yellow ribbons represent the missing in the building's wreckage. Purple ribbons represent the children killed and injured, and white ribbons the innocence lost in the blast."

Some possible solutions to the prevalence of "ribbonism" were recently proposed by an altruistic World Wide Web site called Fez, Here the central problem with "all this ribbon stuff" is identified as the frequent overlapping significance of certain ribbon colours.

Anyone across the Atlantic wearing the white ribbon that so disturbed the Telegraph's leader writer, the so called "peace ribbon", for example, could safely be assumed to be a supporter of an organisation called Men Working to End Men's Violence Against Women.

The answer, the site goes on to suggest, is either to found a state or private body to oversee the assignment of colours, or to adopt "an RGB scale," which should, as anybody who has spent any time fooling with the monitor of their computer knows, provide "millions of colours" thus avoiding potentially embarrassing confusion. Another solution, and perhaps the best, is for everyone to wear "a rainbow ribbon a universal support ribbon, a sort of all occasion thing".


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