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The only line between good and evil is the yellow one running down your back.

What line does it speak of? I'm also not sure what meaning does "run down" have in this context.

The source of this quote is an old advertisement of a video game called "Final Fantasy VII".

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  • 2
    You should keep in mind, the English translation of this game is notoriously low in quality. Tim Rogers, for example, wrote, “In Japanese, [Aeris] is a paragon of emotional intelligence, inner strength, and feminine power. In English, she’s the girl in pink who says ‘This guy are sick.’”
    – Davislor
    Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 21:48
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    @Davislor I'm not sure the translation is relevant to an ad most likely produced entirely by and for the English-speaking side of production
    – Angelos
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 1:26
  • @Angelos I’m not sure whether this is a quote from the translated game script or not. Most of the problems were caused not by incompetence, but by the fact that written Japanese is much more compact than English, so a faithful translation from Japanese into English would often not fit into the same text box. However, this line does not sound idiomatic to me.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 3:42

3 Answers 3

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Unless there is something about Final Fantasy VII about yellow lines, this is probably a reference to the idiom

Have/had a yellow streak down one's back: to be cowardly.

The origin of this idiom is slightly opaque, but the color yellow is generally associated with cowardice:

yellow: (informal) Lacking courage, cowardly
yellow streak: (informal) a cowardly or weak trait, characteristic, or flaw in a person's nature; a tendency to be cowardly, craven, etc.

If this is the source of the idiom, then it is a pun on the word streak, which can mean either a habit or a smear of paint.

Therefore the line

The only line between good and evil is the yellow one running down your back.

Means

The only thing that separates good and evil is how cowardly you are.

Presumably this is an exhortation to get you to play the game, be the hero, overcome all fear and cowardice, and stop the bad guy.

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    There's a complimentary quote that this brings to mind: "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing".
    – minnmass
    Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 21:23
  • @minnmass "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing but play computer games." Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 22:39
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    This is absolutely correct for English-speaking countries. It might be interesting to point out that in Chinese culture (and possibly others), yellow is actually associated with heroism. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_in_Chinese_culture#Yellow Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 13:27
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    @BenHocking Interesting that either could work in this context. But since this appears to be American marketing, the cowardice meaning is probably the one intended.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 14:01
  • @Barmar I hadn't considered that the expression still works with the meaning inverted! I do agree that the cowardice meaning is probably the intended one. As an additional point of interest, Japanese culture (Final Fantasy was developed in Japan, though I'm pointing this out only because it's interesting to me) unsurprisingly has an implication for yellow similar to Chinese culture: tokyoarkade.com/japanese-colour-meanings Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 14:53
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A person who is a coward is said to have "a yellow streak" running down their back.

"You have a longer yellow streak than a line of diarrhetic camels."
(David Lister, Red Dwarf)

I believe the inference here is that this 'streak' (synonymous with a 'line') differentiates who is a hero, and who is not. A hero would act bravely and fight for good, a coward would not. Some equate inaction against evil with evil itself.

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    Common in the UK to say that a coward has 'a [wide] yellow streak running [right] down his back'. I say 'his' because it seems to be mainly men who say that of each other. Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 12:24
  • @MichaelHarvey I’ve heard “yellow streak” in America, and courage called your “spine” or “backbone,” but not “yellow streak down your back.” Not sure if that’s my age, or where I’m from.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 3:38
  • @Davislor But it's a pretty obvious pair of metaphors to mix.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 14:03
  • Native EN-AU: I came to look at this question, because I've never heard this idiom. We would just say "~ is yellow", or perhaps "~ is too yellow", etc. So the "yellow" part is common, just not the "streak" / "line" part.
    – Kingsley
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 0:36
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    @Kingsley My favourite contemporary quote using the expression has to be from Red Dwarf - "You have a longer yellow streak than a line of diarrhetic camels."
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 12:21
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I'm surprised nobody mentioned it, so I don't understand whether it is obvious or it didn't come to anyone's mind, but the yellow streak might be a polite way to referer to some "poo" one makes in its pants when being too coward. So, the answer to "what's a yellow line running down somebody's back" is "poo".

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  • And that's the only line between good and evil, you think?
    – Joachim
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 13:17
  • Hello, and welcome to ELL! Please read this article about how to write a good answer. Thanks!
    – user150280
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 13:20
  • Poo is usually brown. OTOH, it's common to pee one's pants when afraid, and that does leave a yellow stain. That might be the origin of yellow being associated with cowardice, but the association would be long forgotten.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 14:05
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    @Barmar I am Italian, and in different italian regions it is common to refer to "yellow spots" on your back pants as "poo". This is why I took it for garanted that this is the same kind of yellow of the question
    – wetrust
    Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 14:08
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    @Barmar That stain would, of course, be on the front, not the back. And in neither case would the stain be on your back, it'd be on your legs. Nor would the lawyers and PR people at a major game studio (or Sony for that matter, since it was a PS release) let an ad go public which depended on anything so scatological. So pretty sure this wasn't what they were going for. Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 16:02

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