Entries related to red-letter
"of a bright, warm color resembling that of blood or of the highest part of the primery rainbow" [Century Dictionary], Middle English rēd, redde, read, reid, from Old English rēad, used of various shades of purple, crimson, scarlet, pink, etc.; also red clothes, dye, ink, wine, or paint, also "having a ruddy or reddish complexion; red-haired, red-bearded;" from Proto-Germanic *rauthan (source also of Old Norse rauðr, Danish rød, Old Saxon rod, Old Frisian rad, Middle Dutch root, Dutch rood, German rot, Gothic rauþs).
This is reconstructed to be from a PIE root *reudh- "red, ruddy," the only color for which a definite common PIE root word has been found. It also is the root of native ruddy, rust, and, via Latin, ruby, rubric, russet, etc.
Along with dead, bread (n.), lead (n.1), its long vowel shortened in or after Middle English. The surname Read, Reid, Reade, etc. represents the old form of the adjective and retains the original Old English long vowel pronunciation. It corresponds to Brown, Black, White; Red itself being rare as a surname. As the color designation of Native Americans in English from 1580s.
In fixed comparisons, red as blood (Old English), roses (mid-13c.), cherry (c. 1400). From Old English as the color characteristic of inflammation, blistering, etc. Of the complexion, lips, etc., "ruddy, rosy, red" (c. 1200); also of person with a healthy complexion or skin color; to be red in the face as a result of powerful emotion or agitation is by c. 1200; to see red "get angry" is an American English expression attested by 1898.
Red as the characteristic color of "British possessions" on a map is attested from 1885. Red-white-and-blue in reference to American patriotism, from the colors of the flag, is from 1840; in a British context, in reference to the Union flag, 1852.
Red rover, the children's game, attested from 1891. Red ball signifying "express" in railroad jargon is by 1904, originally (1899) a system of moving and tracking freight cars. Red dog, type of U.S. football pass rush, is recorded from 1959 (earlier "lowest grade of flour produced in a mill," by 1889). Red meat, that which is ordinarily served or preferred undercooked, is from 1808; the food of wild beasts, hence its figurative use for something that satisfies a basic appetite (by 1792; popular from late 20c.).
Red shift in spectography is first recorded 1923. Red carpet "sumptuous welcome" is from 1934, but the custom for dignitaries is described as far back as Aeschylus ("Agamemnon"); it also was the name of a type of English moth. Red ant is from 1660s.
According to Watkins, perhaps via Etruscan from Greek diphthera "tablet" (with change of d- to l- as in lachrymose), from a hypothetical root *deph- "to stamp." In this sense it replaced Old English bocstæf, literally "book staff" (compare German Buchstabe "letter, character," from Old High German buohstab, from Proto-Germanic *bok-staba-m).
Latin littera also meant "a writing, document, record," and in plural litteræ "a letter, epistle, missive communication in writing," a sense passed through French and attested in English letter since early 13c. (replacing Old English ærendgewrit "written message," literally "errand-writing"). The Latin plural also meant "literature, books," and figuratively "learning, liberal education, schooling" (see letters).
The custom of giving the school letter as an achievement award in sports, attested by 1908, is said to have originated with University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. Earlier in reference to colleges it meant "university degree or honor that adds initials to a name" (1888). Expression to the letter "precisely" is from 1520s (earlier after the letter, mid-14c.). Letter-quality (adj.) "suitable for (business) letters" is from 1977. For letters patent (with French word order) see patent (n.).
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on red-letter nights a large gathering greeted the celebrity