Green Around the Gills – A Simple Illness Expression

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Green around the gills is an idiomatic expression that describes someone not feeling well. This usage of colors to convey health dates back to the 14th century. Delving into its use and potential origins can enhance comprehension for those unfamiliar with the expression. 

Idioms, like green around the gills, are linguistic expressions that convey a figurative meaning beyond their literal interpretation. They help define an author’s message but may confuse those unfamiliar with their use. Understanding their meanings is key to mastering the English language. 

This article explores the meaning and usage of green around the gills, uncovers its origins, and provides diverse examples and related terms. Keep reading to delve deeper into this idiom and test your knowledge with the quiz at the end.

Green Around the Gills – A Simple Illness Expression

Green Around the Gills or Green About the Gills?

You may hear the expression as green about the gills, or even green behind the gills. They all mean the same, but the preposition around is used much more frequently than about or behind. 

What Does the Idiom Green Around the Gills Mean?

The idiom green around the gills means that someone looks ill, especially someone who looks nauseated.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, being green around the gills means to look ill and pale. Collins Dictionary takes it a step further and describes it as “somewhat pale, as from being sickly, nervous, or frightened.”

The idiom is often used in relation to feeling as if one has to vomit or having had their stomach turned due to sickness, fear, or even anger. You can use it to express discomfort with a situation as well.

Variations of the Idiom

Here are some variations of the idiom green around the gills, generally meaning to look unwell or sickly:

  • Green behind the gills
  • Looking green about the gills
  • White around the gills
  • Looking a bit green
  • Appearing green at the gills

How Is Green Around the Gills Commonly Used in Context?

Understanding the context of an idiom is crucial for grasping its usage. Pay close attention to the tone and context of the expression for your audience to understand the reference.

Below, we laid out the different ways you can use this idiom, where to find examples of its usage, and tips for using it effectively.

What Are the Different Ways to Use Green Around the Gills?

  • Describing someone feeling nauseous or unwell: “After the roller coaster ride, Lexa looked green around the gills.”
  • Indicating discomfort or unease: “The intense heat during the hike left everyone feeling a bit green around the gills.”
  • Depicting a pale or sickly appearance: “Bellamy’s sudden revelation made Clarke go green around the gills with shock.”
  • Expressing physical or emotional distress: “The challenging exam left students green around the gills with anxiety.”
  • Symbolizing a state of discomfort or illness: “Witnessing the accident, Octavia turned green around the gills at the sight of blood.”

Where Can You Find Examples of Green Around the Gills?

Most idioms are used casually and within informal language. Green around the gills is commonly seen in everyday conversation. However, it is also seen within literary dialog, movies, television series, and various online resources. 

The following examples from newspapers illustrate its use:

  • But as world markets are stalked by extreme volatility, the well-fed wealth managers are looking quite green around the gills. (The Financial Times)
  • Politics, crime, and everything else combine to leave us all feeling a little green around the gills most of the time. (The South African)

What Are Some Tips for Using Green Around the Gills Effectively?

  • Understand the meaning: It is essential to understand the imagery and the associations with discomfort or illness that the idiom conveys.
  • Use in descriptive contexts: The idiom is often used to describe someone’s physical appearance or condition. 
  • Consider the context: The idiom may not be appropriate for formal or professional contexts. Consider the context and the familiarity of your audience before using the idiom.
  • Use descriptive language: When using the idiom, you can enhance its effectiveness by combining it with descriptive language that further highlights the person’s sickly appearance or discomfort.

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Green Around the Gills?

green around the gills vs. green about the gills vs. green behind the gills
Green around the gills, green about the gills and green behind the gills usage trend.

The idiom green around the gills, used to describe someone who looks unwell, has historical roots dating back centuries. According to, the color green has been associated with a sickly complexion since around 1300, and gills refer to the flesh around human jaws and ears since the 1600s.

In the 1800s, the word gills was also paired with white and yellow to imply sickness, but it’s the alliterative green that has prevailed. Thus, the endurance of green around the gills captures a long-standing observation of human illness in the English language.

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

Although other relationships with colors related to “being” about “the gills” have died off through the years, green is still a widely recognized and accepted use to express an individual’s health.

What Are Some Related Terms to Green Around the Gills?

Reviewing other phrases related to green about the gills can help you to fully understand its use. Here are some of its synonyms and antonyms:

Green Around the Gills – A Simple Illness Expression 1


  • Pale as a ghost
  • As weak as a kitten
  • Sick as a dog
  • Looking like death warmed over
  • Feeling under the weather
  • Pale-faced
  • Sickly-looking


  • Healthy-looking
  • Rosy-cheeked
  • Vibrant
  • Energetic
  • Radiant
  • Blooming

Green Around the Gills: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

Let’s Review

Green around the gills is a time-honored idiomatic expression dating back to the 14th century, vividly portraying someone not feeling well. This phrase straightforwardly conveys a person’s unwell appearance and discomfort, often linked to illness.

While its usage is generally informal, caution is advised to avoid unintentional offense by using it out of context. Understanding its origins and nuances ensures effective and respectful communication when employing this expressive idiom.