Red-Letter Day – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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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.

Idioms are unique words and phrases that often have literal and figurative meanings. They are an excellent way to create an allusion or highlight symbolism in speech and writing to help an audience better understand your message.

The idiom red-letter day is the perfect example of this. It is a term that spans back to ancient Rome, and its literal meaning provides a very understandable analogy in modern times. Use this term to emphasize days special or important to you!

Learn about what a red-letter day is and its fascinating history below!

What Is a Red-Letter Day?

Red Letter Day Idiom Origin Meaning

A red-letter day is a day that is special, remarkable in a positive way, or that affords a great opportunity or is particularly memorable.

Its roots go back to the literal use of marking important red days on calendars and back to antiquity!

For example:

  • It was a red-letter day at the high school as the winning basketball team arrived back home after taking the state title.
  • In case you need a reminder, this upcoming Thursday is a red-letter day, and your presence at the ceremony would be appreciated.
  • The preparations for the celebration are being finalized for what is certain to become a future red-letter day if the committee decides to make this a yearly event.

Is Red-Letter Day Hyphenated?

The phrase red-letter day is sometimes seen without a hyphen, as in red letter day, but the Oxford English Dictionary only lists the hyphenated form as correct. The use of red, literally, on a calendar makes the day stand out as something notable and more important than those days surrounding it. Therefore, it makes sense to use the physical practice of marking days down in red in a figurative use as well.

It is most often rendered as a hyphenated compound word, which is composed of two words joined together without a space or hyphen. Hyphens are used to join two or more words acting as a single term, such as Red + Letter = Red-Letter.

Origin of Red-Letter Day

Red Letter Day vs Red Letter Day Ngram
Red-letter day and red letter day usage trend.

Although our Ngram begins to show the use of the term during the 18th century, this refers only to its modern spelling and use. It actually has a much more illustrious and long history. In fact, the practice of a “red-letter day” in its original form goes back to the ancient Romans!

Roman Influences

The Romans were responsible for our modern calendar and were fastidious in recording their histories upon it. One of the oldest surviving calendars (dated between 85 and 55 BC before the Julian Calendar reform) is the fragmented Fasti Antiates Maiores. It was found in Nero’s villa in Antium and is well-detailed in its recordings of various ongoing events.

One of the most interesting things about it is the details of important dates marked in red. Celebratory days dedicated to the goddess of grain and the goddess Venus, the Anniversary of the founding of Rome, and the remembrance of the Roman defeat on the River Allia are all clearly marked on their respective dates in red upon the calendar.

Middle Age Influences

This practice continued (obviously) with many comments on its use through the Middle Ages. By the 17th century, the custom was officially referred to as a red-letter day.

For example:

  • “We writep capital letters wip reed colour.” John Trevisa in Polychronicon (1387)
  • “We wryte yet in oure kalenders the hyghe festes wyth red lettres of colour of purpre.” William Caxton in The boke yf Enyeydos (1490)
  • “The Red-letter daies being the Ornament of her Year.” Edmund Gayton in The religion of a physician (1663)
  • “Their Chief Red Letter day is St. Election, wch is annually Observed according to Charter, to choose their Govnr.” Sarah Kemble Knight in The Journals of Madam Knight (1666-1727)

Let’s Review

Marking special days and events on calendars in red has been a practice since ancient Rome. This tradition has carried forward through the centuries. By the 1600s, red-letter days were officially recognized in a figurative sense to comment on days that were particularly special or marked a memorable event.

Today, we use the word in the same way to note celebrations and other days of importance.