Color My World

Which word is more colorful: color or colour?

If you’re American, do you ever color your “colors” with an occasional “U” to lend your prose a sense of savoir faire? At any rate, have you ever wondered where the U went? A lovely blog called COLOURlovers addresses this question with an informative post called Color vs. Colour – The Great Spelling Battle. The short version is that when Noah “Dictionary is My Last Name” Webster saw colour he saw red. If you know what I mean.

By the way, from the COLOURlovers site, I also recommend the Color Legends posts (Part I and Part II).

When it comes to teasing apart the idiomatic weirdness of language, no one is better than Rambles contributor Alan Kennedy. So we are tickled pink this week to have Alan tell us about the strangely liberal and incoherent use of color across cultures. Take it away Alan…


Color My World

by Alan Kennedy

Readers of my previous entries may recall that I do a little lesson with my ESL students which they find both practical and entertaining — reviewing some of the common color idioms that we have in English. If you have not given this topic any thought before, you may be surprised at how many we have in English. These are often idioms in the truest sense, because they have figurative meanings that one probably could not “guess” from the color associations themselves (i.e. yellow-bellied, once in a blue moon, red tape).

The seeming arbitrariness of some of these is underscored by the fact that in other languages these colors have different associations and are used in idioms with completely different meanings. When Korean speakers say that someone has a black heart they mean he has an ulterior motive — nothing to do with the “cruelty” idea it connotes for us. A thriller novel in Italian is un libro giallo (a yellow book), unrelated to the scandal-mongering notion of our yellow journalism. It turns out that many — perhaps most — languages have color idioms of this kind. My lesson, and the subsequent discussions it prompts, has allowed me to collect some of these non-English ones, which has now turned into a bit of a side project for me. I have written before about how a black eye for English speakers is a blue, purple or grey eye in other languages – and mentioned a few others – but I’d like to break this topic out a bit more.

In English, he is blue means he’s sad (unless he’s in the Blue Man Group, a less likely meaning). You may be surprised to know that the German translation, er ist blau, means he is drunk or stoned. We have a white lie (“Your haircut looks great!”). For the Turks, this is a pembe yalan – a pink lie. The Koreans go one step further with the “lie” color idioms. They have a great one: a red lie, which means a lie which everyone knows is a lie. (“We use when talking about politicians”, one student told me. Some things are so universal). I thought this was my all-time favorite “lie” color idiom until one day, out of the blue, a student from Munich told me that her compatriots lie the blue out of the sky when they’re really shoveling it. Now that’s a colorful one.

A lot of French color idioms are already familiar to us (film noir, la vie en rose, carte blanche) but did you know rire jaune (to laugh yellow) is to give a forced, insincere laugh? Good one, non? How about faire quelqu’un marron (to make someone brown), which means to cheat on someone?

So here’s a question: is inexperience blue or green? The French say être fleur bleue (to be a blue flower) for naïveté. The Japanese seem to side with the French – they say an inexperienced person has a blue butt. We English speakers, on the other hand, might say she’s so green about the unseasoned newbie in the office. That is, unless we add “with envy”, in which case we are talking about something else entirely. Of course, “that company is very green” probably refers to being environmentally aware…
Circling back to French, they get vert de peur (green from fear). You still with me?

Good. Let’s stick with green. In some dialects of Spanish, ponerse verde a uno (to become green to someone) means to tell someone off. I guess we could imagine a heated U.N. debate whereby a violently angry Spaniard becomes green to a Frenchman, who in turn becomes green with fear. This situation may not necessarily impress the Russian delegate, who feels зелная скука (green boredom) — utter boredom — at the all-too-familiar situation. On the other hand, the reaction from the Thai delegate might be that her body turns green (she becomes angry), especially if she supports the French.
Perhaps, to lighten the mood, the Spaniard will tell a green joke (chiste verde) — a dirty joke — once he has cooled off. All of this is of less concern to the Italian delegate, who has bigger problems: he is at the green (al verde) — by which one means he is broke. (The American allegedly tried to embezzle some money for him, but sadly he was caught red-handed, so the Italian remains in the red).

Speaking of red, linguists have determined that if any world language has only one a lexeme for a color besides black and white, it is always red. It should be no surprise, then, that there are many good “red” idioms. Here’s a sample. The Russians say красная крыша (red roof) for a place illegally protected by police. Arabic speakers say show the red eye for being strict with or disapproving of someone. Inexplicably, Italians call the egg yolk the rosso d’uovo (red of the egg). Speakers of Mandarin Chinese say he is big red and big purple for someone who is popular and famous.

A few more blue ones: a Brazilian says está tudo azul — “everything is blue” — when all is right with the world. Rare steak for the French is biftek bleu. Here’s another of my all-time favorites: Germans blau machen (make blue) when they decide to not go to work for no real reason. Nice! (And somehow, seemingly, very un-German!).

I heartily welcome any other additions to my project data from any multi-lingual/multi-cultural readers of this blog. Please don’t lose any sleep over it (or pasar una noche en blanco — as they do in Spain.) But seriously, I am rolling out the red carpet to welcome all contributions. I am giving you the green light, as it were. The offer is right here in black and white. O.K., I’ll stop.

One final thought to leave you with:

Can there be such a thing as a blue-collar blue-blood?

3 thoughts on “Color My World”

  1. Another great read Alan! You should pitch these to NYT or Atlantic Monthly for a regular column.

    They really stimulate the grey matter. And never a red herring.

    Hey, I think the color for the forced laugh in Italian is green: ridere verde.

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