Alan’s Color/Language Project is taking off

Language scholar Alan Kennedy has written here many times, and I’m honored to host his Color/Language Project on this site. Alan is fascinated with the ways color crops up in languages, and during his investigations of the subject, he learned that there really isn’t any complete collection of color idioms in all languages. So he decided to make one.

I helped out with the technical part because I was interested in trying out the forms interface for Google Spreadsheets. And I’m happy to say it works extremely well. Anybody can fill out the form and add a new idiom. For a long time there wasn’t much activity on the site, but then we started getting lots of new contributions all at once. Why? A little poking around revealed that Marc Abrahams was kind enough to add a link on the Improbable Research Blog. Improbable Research is, by the way, the same outfit that brings us the Ig Nobel prizes. So we are in august company.

Take a look back at Alan’s original article on colors and language, then browse the ever growing Idiom List (more than 300 so far!).

And if you can, please add a new phrase or forward this to someone who can add something colorful in a language we don’t have yet. I know some Telugu speakers out there with very colorful imaginations…

12 thoughts on “Alan’s Color/Language Project is taking off”

  1. Thanks, Ned.
    So what have we learned so far?
    1. The colors used most often in the idioms we’ve collected seem to be black, blue, and red.

    2. Gaelic uses the hell out of color idioms! Who knew?

    3. I have not heard of one single idiom using the color orange in any language! If anyone can find one, I will send you $5. It has to be the color/shade “orange” – it can’t be the fruit orange (or similar colors like golden).

  2. “I’m orange with desire for a five dollar bill.”

    I propose a comment mini-contest for new idioms that make use of exotic colors. My nominee: “Real as teal,” meaning genuine or sincere. Or: “It’s all gone taupe,” meaning the glory days are over, and everything is mediocre now.

  3. Wait a minute, if anyone can find an orange metaphor, you’re going to send Ned five bucks? No fair!!

  4. Ha ha – no – the five bucks goes to whomever digs up an idiom!
    I can say pretty definitively right now that you won’t find one which is 1. known to most speakers of American English and
    2. about the color (not the fruit)
    – my suggestion is to look into other “Englishes”, or foreign languages…

  5. Hot as I am for a crisp fin, it seems like “orange” is a fairly new distinction, like “teal” and “taupe” so some of the shoulda-been orange idioms are hiding behind other colors. Fire used to be “red” until someone looked at a fire and said, “hmmm… it’s really more of an orangy color, innit.” As such, I think the Italian “rosso d’uovo” should count, since egg yolks are clearly orange.

  6. I believe I found one.

    It took much internet searching, browsing, linking, clicking and free associating. A fine way to pass the waning hours of the weekend …

    Language: Vietnamese
    The phrase: ch?y máu cam
    Literal translation: to flow orange blood
    Meaning: A nosebleed

  7. Wow! Nice job, Jay! I’m going to take your word for it (I don’t have any Vietnamese students at the moment)…it’s been added to the site and a $5 bill is on it’s way to you. Don’t spend it all in one place…I think you should feel free to add “linguist” to your resume now.

  8. A Russian freind of mine has pointed out that Ukrainians call their 2004-2005 political protetsts the “Orange Revolution”,. and I think this contsitutes #2, because:
    1. It is about the color, not the fruit, and
    2. It is idiomatic (the revolution was not, in fact, “orange”.

  9. Well, if that’s the case, then calling Northern Irish Protestants “Orangemen” should count, too. I think they even share their namesake with a prominent American university.

  10. Fascinating project. I wondered if there was any correlation in the various languages words (or lack of) for colours and these observations due to our eye physiology:

    >>”In the early 1800s Goethe (yes, the Goethe) noticed that red/green and blue/yellow were never perceived together, in the sense that no color could be described as a combination of those pairs. No color could be described as “reddish green;” if you are asked to imagine “a green with a bit of red,” nothing comes to mind. In the following 150 years, various experiments were devised to test this idea, all of which validated his observation.”
    – which I read in this fascinating piece on colour vision and colour wheels:
    Also our perception of colours, especially blue, is far less detailed than black and white, which we can exploit for compression:
    I thought about both of these when reading how unimportant some colours are in some languages.

  11. Thanks for the comment. There was actually a very good book published last year which addresses many of the points you make – it’s called “Through the Language Glass” and I recommend it for anyone who is interested in the topic (lots of cool colorful visuals).

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