‘It burst open, yellowly’: The colourful life of adverbs


All the recent uproar about the change in status of ‘literally’ is a timely reminder of just how flexible the English language is. One class of words in particular lends itself to a wealth of colourful and creative uses – the common adverb.

Adverbs are often derided by writers like Stephen King. But, when it comes to linguistic creativity, the humble adverb is in fact a most flexible friend. This is partly because new ones can be formed easily, from almost any adjective, by adding a suffix ‘-ly’. In fact, the English language is so productive in this respect (relative to German, for example, which does not form adverbs so readily) that it has been termed an ‘adverbial‘ language (Swan, 1997).

To my mind, one of the most creative sub-classes of English adverbs are those based on colours: ‘redly’, ‘blackly’, ‘greenly’, and so on. One of my favourite examples is the use of ‘yellowly’ in Ian Fleming’s 1958 James Bond novel ‘Dr. No’.

In the passage, our hero awakes in a hotel room to find five inches of poisonous centipede crawling up his leg. From then on, the tension mounts unbearably. Bond lies naked and motionless as the beast slowly crawls up over his face and, at last, onto the pillow. He finally flicks the creature onto the floor, and then hits it with a shoe. Fleming concludes:

The centipede was whipping from side to side in its agony – five inches of grey-brown, shiny death. Bond hit it again. It burst open, yellowly.

For me, it’s a wonderful piece of writing. Apart from the oozing sound-symbolism of the two liquid consonants, there’s the satisfyingly abrupt triplet finish of ‘yellowly’, akin to Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’.

But what’s going on when Fleming uses an adverb based on ‘yellow’ in this way?

Every school child knows that adverbs describe manner – the way in which a dynamic action takes place. When adverbs are at their most fundamental, this is true. Adverbs most often modify verbs or verb phrases in sentences like:

(1)  The cowboy wandered slowly.
(2)  The boy picked up the insect carefully.

This type of adverb is most well established (and therefore most ‘prototypical’) in English. But part of the reason why English adverbs lend themselves to so much creativity is that they can take on other roles too, beyond describing manner.

Linguist Toril Swan identifies three sets of English adverbs (Swan, 1997). As well as the manner adverbs (1) and (2), he identifies two other types, which are a much more recent phenomena in English: sentence adverbs and subject-modifier.

Sentence adverbs encode the speaker’s subjective evaluation of the whole sentence, in terms of doubt, probability, desirability, and so on:

(3)  Fortunately, he knew the way to the highway.
(4)  The favourite will probably win the race.

Subject-modifier adverbs, on the other hand, function primarily to modify the properties of the subject, for example:

(5)  His mother looked on hopefully.
(6)  Martha willingly apologised.

In (4), for example, the speaker thinks it likely (along with the bookies) that the favourite will win. In (5), the adverb encodes information about the subject – that the mother is hopeful of something. Fleming’s ‘yellowly’ is of the latter type. It says something about the appearance of the hapless anthropod as it oozes, slowly, across the floor…

(Apart from the ‘yuck’ factor) what is most striking, and therefore most creative, about Fleming’s use of ‘yellowly’ is that it is so unusual. At least, it seems that way to me. Even if ‘yellowly’ has made it into the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (with the definition ‘with a bright or yellow colour’) it feels like a pretty rare word.

But just how rare are adverbs like ‘yellowly’ in English? To find out, I took a trawl through the 100 million word British National Corpus (BNC), looking for other examples of ‘colourful adverbs’. After removing proper nouns (like ‘Whitely’) I ended up with a list of 63 examples, as follows (and in order of descending frequency):

Whitely (23 times); Blackly (19); Greenly (8); Redly (6); Pinkly (6); Yellowly (1); Orangely (0); Bluely (0); Purplely (0)

Of these, 51 were from literary fiction. However, there are a few examples from journalism and other non-fiction, such as the following from a book about the French Pyrenees:

‘In a greenly Arcadian valley in the heart of the mountains […]’

In 8 cases, the adverb is used metaphorically (‘greenly’ as in ‘green with envy’ or ‘fresh’ or even ‘environmentally friendly, ‘blackly’ as in ‘depressed’ or ‘sorrowful’, and so on), but in the majority of cases (55) the adverb is used literally pertaining to the colour of the subject. For example, there is this neatly symmetrical line from Craig Raine’s ‘The Onion Memory’:

‘One of Etty’s nudes was hanging like a clue, the flesh tints pinkly obvious, the shadows crudely blue.’

Or there’s this from Anne Gay’s ‘The Brooch of Azure Midnight’:

‘She couldn’t make it to her feet with one shin-bone staring whitely at her through her pant-leg.’

Most common were mostly literal descriptions of radiance, based on ‘flashed’, ‘gleamed’, ‘glowed’, ‘blazed’, ‘glittered’, and so on. For example:

‘[the candles] burned yellowly […]’
‘the gardens glittered greenly in the sun.’
‘[his] teeth flashed whitely.’
‘lust glowed redly in his terrible face.’

Finally, on 11 occasions, the adverbs are buried in noun phrases. This is most common for the adverb ‘blackly’, used (in the metaphorical sense) in phrases such as:

‘[he] never loses his blackly satirical edge.’
‘Terry Gilliam’s blackly comic futuristic fantasy […]’
‘I was blackly depressed.’
‘[their] blackly dilated eyes’

All of the ‘colourful’ adverbs I found, with one or two arguable exceptions, are employed as subject-modifiers. Swan actually divides the class of subject-modifier adverbs into those that denote states of mind of the subject (‘hopefully’, ‘sadly’, and so on), which he calls ‘mental’ subject-modifiers, and those that denote external characteristics of the subject, which he terms ‘physical’ (e.g. ‘yellowly as in ‘the candles burned yellowly’). This latter category, which Swan says is the most recent to appear in English, includes the vast majority of the ‘colourful’ adverbs I found in the BNC corpus.

So ‘colourful’ adverbs, as a subset of the new class of ‘physical’ subject-modifiers are pretty rare. But they are definitely out there in the wild. And the thing about ‘colourful’ adverbs is, just like all adverbs, they are growing in number.

Indeed, new ones seem to be born every day. In a day-by-day corpus analysis of The Times newspaper over a period of 3 years, the most frequent neologisms found were words ending with ‘-ly’, most of which will therefore be adverbs (Baayen and Renouf, 1996). (In fact, some people have even suggested that affixation of ‘-ly’ is so productive that it is actually an example of inflectional morphology, acting at a grammatical level, rather than simply at a lexical level.) And that’s not to mention the recent invasion of new adverbs formed with the suffix ‘-wise’, meaning ‘in relation to’ or ‘from the point of view of’ (Lindquist, 2007):

So, how long will it be, I wonder, before we see ‘bluely’, or ‘mauvely’ or ‘greeny-brownly’? (In fact, a quick Google search already turns up, as the fourth hit, an example of ‘bluely’: ‘[I] reached out to prod the bluely gleaming chest of the thing.’) Adverbs might be the lesser cousins of the adjective, and avoided by some big name writers, but you can’t deny their high status in linguistic creativity, at least in English.

And, they’re multiplying too, most colourfully.


Baayen, R. H. and Renouf, A. (1996) Chronicling the Times: Productive Lexical Innovations in an English Newspaper. Language, 72, 69-96.

Lindquist, H. (2007) Viewpoint -wise: The Spread and Develpment of a New Type of Adverb in American and British English. Journal of English Linguistics, 35, 132-156.

Swan, T. (1997) From Manner to Subject Modification: Adverbilization in English. Nordic Journal of Linguistics, 20, 179-195.


7 thoughts on “‘It burst open, yellowly’: The colourful life of adverbs

  1. Pingback: Four blogs on language and linguistics | Sentence first

  2. I now need to find ways to slip in the word “yellowly” in common conversation, lol. What a great word! Adverbs are usually considered a lazy way to describe what’s going on, but a word like that is anything but lazy. Very jazzy. 😉

  3. Pingback: When do you have the right to play with someone else’s language? | Word Jazz

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