'Paint the Town Red': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on November 5, 2023

Would you like to know more about the idiom 'paint the town red?' Then you've come to the right place. This article will teach you the meaning of the phrase, where it came from, and when it's appropriate to use it.

To give you the short version:

  • To 'paint the town red' means to go out and party with your friends, usually in a rowdy way that gets you noticed.

What Does 'Paint the Town Red' Mean?

When someone paints the town red, it means they go out and enjoy themselves and spend an enjoyable night out, usually drinking alcohol and dancing and being altogether extravagant. A bunch of friends who sit down for a quiet meal in a restaurant are not 'painting the town red.'

Imagine you've just graduated from college, and you and all your friends want to celebrate.

You might say to them:

Come on girls, it's time to paint the town red!

This phrase is an idiom, which means that the sum of its words doesn't mean the same thing as the words read out individually. Idioms usually have a meaning that can't really be deducted; you kind of just have to know what they mean.

Where Does 'Paint the Town Red' Come From?

There are quite a few theories as to where the phrase 'paint the town in red' came from, including which part of the word it started in and its origin story. Let's have a look at the various speculations.

The Marquis of Waterford

The most common theory is, ironically, probably false. As the story goes, on an infamous night in 1837, the Marquis of Waterford, known as Earl to his friends, headed out on a fairly debaucherous night out with said friends. There was lots of alcohol and partying involved, and Earl was known to be quite a rebellious and trouble-making character.

The group reportedly acquired buckets of red paint and quite literally painted a bunch of buildings red. And from there stems the legend. This theory, if it's true, allocates British origins to the saying.

We do know for sure that this did happen. because newspaper reports and various stories ensued; there was even a song made up about it. But what is not verified is the fact that the famous idiom would come from this event. Although I'm sure you'll agree, it would make sense. But the fact is there's no written evidence of this saying until decades after the Marquis's night out. It was in the July 1883 New York Times:

Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk... Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to 'paint the town red'.

Red Firecrackers

Another popular theory places the phrase's first usage in the United States. An 1897 edition of The Chicago Advance (1897) reads:

The boys painted the town [New York City] red with firecrackers [on Independence Day].

Because it was customary to celebrate with the use of bonfires and fireworks—thus making the sky appear red—it would make sense for the idiom 'paint the town red' to originate from this custom.

However, as we know, the idiom appeared in print before then, in the 1883 New York Times. This would seem to invalidate the present theory.

Other Theories

The list of other theories as to this phrase's origins can get pretty long.  Some believe it refers to the association of the color red with violence. Others have suggested that it relates to the redness you get on your face when you're drunk. There's even one theory that says it's about the 'red light districts' and men's desire to make the whole town red on a night out.

Oscar Wilde himself has offered his very own idea: he offers that the idiom comes from Dante's famous poem Inferno, where he quotes:

we are they who painted the world scarlet with sins.

Drinking alcohol and debauchery have often been considered sins, so this theory holds up.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning of this well-known idiom, let's take a look at some example sentences that use this idiom.

After their team's victory, they decided to paint the town red by going out to celebrate all night.

It's my birthday, and I'm ready to paint the town red with my friends this evening.

The newlyweds planned to paint the town red during their honeymoon in Las Vegas.

When we finally finished our exams, we felt the need to celebrate and paint the town red.

The local soccer team's championship win had the entire town ready to paint the town red in celebration.

For her bachelorette party, the bride-to-be and her friends intended to go all out and paint the town red.

With their unexpected promotion, the employees decided to paint the town red to mark their success.

After a long and exhausting week at work, we were eager to let loose and paint the town red on Friday night.

The annual festival is a time for the whole community to come together and paint the town red with music and dancing.

He just received a job offer that he'd been hoping for, so he's planning to paint the town red to celebrate this achievement. 

Other Ways to Say 'Paint the Town Red'

There are plenty of other ways to say you got information from the most reliable source. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

  • Let your hair down.
  • Have a blast
  • Go on a spree
  • Live it up
  • Go out on the town
  • Have a night on the town
  • Party hard
  • Go wild
  • Kick up your heels

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says, 'Paint the town red,' they're talking about someone who went out and partied it up, drawing attention to themselves in the process. 

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!  

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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